Copyright and Fair Use: My Two Cents

Music teachers have always debated about copyright and fair use issues. The blogosphere and recent podcasts have created new forums for this debate. Technology has certainly changed the framework of many copyright issues, but at its core, the debate continues.

My take on the whole thing involves a little of the golden rule, recognition of the law, a little hypocracy, and hopefully a lot of common sense.

It seems to me that there are a few principles which play into this issue.

Principle #1: Writers and publishers should profit from their work. I have no doubt we all understand that already.

Principle #2: Students will lose and destroy sheet music. I’ll never forget when one of my students brought me his music folder which his dog had peed all over. I very willingly replaced the whole thing, including the method book he had bought.

Principle #3: Teachers are caught in the middle. Our budgets sometimes don’t allow for frequent purchases of sheet music, yet we want to provide the best possible musical experience for our students. I also believe many of us sincerely want to support the writers and publishers whose music we enjoy.

With these principles in mind, here are a few of my own opinions about particular dilemmas.

Opinion #1: Sheet music purchases deserve a bigger percentage of our budget than we often allow. We are willing to spend $2,000 on a new instrument, but are we willing to spend $50 to buy a legal edition of a publication? We spend thousands more on band uniforms and dry cleaning, busses and hotels, instrument maintenance, but are we willing to spend money on our music? We wouldn’t shoplift reeds, valve oil, strings, or instruments from a music store, so why should we do effectively the same to publishers and writers?

Opinion #2: I recently heard a discussion about prodiving original scores to adjudicators at music festivals. One teacher felt it was unfair to expect teachers to pay the publisher again for copies of scores they had already purchased simply to provide originals to adjudicators. My feeling is that if the teacher has a high enough opinion of the work to use it as a festival selection or even a concert selection, the few extra dollars for legal scores are worth the price.

Opinion #3: Publishers need to come up with some sort of provision for teachers to distribute sheet music. This is where things get tricky, of course. Consider the format of various classroom publications: You’ve probably heard of “blackline masters” and “reproducibles.” Publishers of curriculum recognize that classroom teachers will need to photocopy the material, and it’s not cost effective to sell sets of 30-40 sheets of each page for students’ use. What about some sort of equivalent for sheet music?

What do you think? Does anyone here have experience with getting permission to make photocopies? Do you buy the required extra scores and parts when necessary? I don’t expect anyone here to confess to copying huge volumes of music, but what are your thoughts and practices?


5 thoughts on “Copyright and Fair Use: My Two Cents

  1. It depends on what your countries Copyright laws are, but I believe that in Australia, you are allowed to photocopy things so long as it is for private study only. For example, I’ve just bought my own copy of Mozart’s 3rd Violin concerto in G Major. I might decide that instead of learning it from the score, I’ll photocopy it and learn from the photocopies. This way I can write all over it, highlight stuff to help me remember and such things. When I don’t need all that stuff any more, I can just go to a clean photocopy. However, if I was to perform this piece, I would need to perform from the original (unless I performed from memory), for the performance is no longer for study purposes.

    I’m a big fan of copyright. A creator of music myself, copyright is important to protect my own rights. Personally, I dislike the use of the term copyleft, as it is misinterpreting the “right” in copyright. However, I am a fan of Creative Commons, which basically covers what most Copyright laws already allow in that it is the Author that decides how his work can be used. For example, when I finish this composition that I’m working on, I might release the score on the internet with the copyright being that it is only to be used for study purposes, and any performances must be arranged through me. However, my arrangement of Pachelbel’s Canon for solo Violin I released with the only request being that I be informed of performances, which gladly I have been.

    I believe that as composers and eventually publishers come to think about copyright more, then they will review how they use it. Instead of putting a standard copyright notice down the bottom, include a simple, plain english description of what you can do with the score and what you can’t.

  2. I took my band to contest last year playing Galactic Episode from the “Accent on Achievement” book. It is not published in a standalone form, and I didn’t want to send the judges a copy of the entire teachers manual.

    I called Alfred, we worked out an arrangement to allow me to photocopy the scores after paying them a nominal fee. I copied the permission notice they gave me as well as the score, bound each one, and had them in a packet for the judges. No problems.

    What are the chances of some publishers selling pdf formats of their publications? That way, you would have no ethical problem with reproducing them, and you could work around the international copyright conundrum. 🙂

  3. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Ben and Joel.

    Ben, I understand your thoughts about granting permissions for your own compositions. I would guess that a majority of unpublished composers probably feel the same way you do. Composing is a labor of love, and it’s gratifying to know that someone out there is performing your work, so you want to do what you can to support them.

    I have a little experience working on the other side of things, having worked with a stock photography agency. Part of our responsibilities were to check for permissions whenever we saw one of our photographs in print. That’s what the photographers were paying us to do so they could focus on their creative work and stay profitable. Likewise, I would guess that publishers are much less likely to follow your lead and simply be notified when someone performs (or copies!) their work.

    Joel, your thought about PDF files is right on. I wouldn’t have a problem with paying the same price as printed sheet music, or maybe even a little more, and have a reproducible PDF file I could use as necessary for my teaching situation.

  4. As a pianist whose mother was very strict about honesty, I avoided dishonestly copying protected music.

    But as a private teacher, I want to give my students the music they need without breaking their budgets. Especially if they only need Addam’s Family Theme, not the whole TV hits book.

    And since music stores aren’t always close or stocked, I’m a big fan of pay & download sites, 1 piece at a time. And I like subscription sites, paying a flat rate for total access. I like the PDF idea.

    Like Joel, I did once call a company about reprints of an old choral number, and for 4 copies, it wasn’t worth the effort: they just gave me a copy permission number to write at the bottom and said have at it.

  5. Interesting about the permission. My district uses an out-of-print elementary orchestra folio and we have a number of publisher-created photocopies. Thanks for sharing.

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