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Copyright Law: The Legal Side of Choral Music

Kristan Burkert, Portland Lesbian Choir (adapted by jrm)

Most of us sing because we love music and the way its emotional/spiritual power touches us and our audiences. When the magic is there, we forget the details. Yet there are people for whom details have a magic of their own. Find those women in your choir and give them this article, after you have read it. It is because of one such woman that the Portland Lesbian Choir began to pay attention to copyright compliance thank you, Cheyenne Chapman.

Fundamentally, copyright compliance is about honoring the creators of our music, helping them make their living from their music so that they can make more of it for us. These creators often are people who are friends and lovers, members, if not of our choir, then someone else's. We are everywhere. "Knowing one" often is an incentive to changing disrespectful behavior.

If you have a new resolve to take copyright more seriously, what do you need to do? You've found a song you like and want to include it in your next concert, here is what to do if.......

1. the song is (or was) published, even though you may have a photocopy of a published score. Buy enough copies for your choir to use in rehearsal. If the publication is out of print, you must ask the publisher for permission to make copies. (They may offer photocopies for sales from their archives, so don't assume you can make your own.) Local sheet music stores can give you phone numbers and addresses for publishers.

2. the song is published, but not for women's voices, or with enough parts to challenge you, etc. Contact the publisher for permission to arrange. Ditto if you want to change the words significantly (i.e. create a parody or make something "PC"). Make sure to indicate if you will be charging admission to the performance of your arrangement; standard permission forms often are designed for schools and religious organizations.

3. someone gave you a copy of an unpublished song: heads up here, because many of us receive such songs from other choruses. These are often the songs by the folks we most want to support. I find it helps to think of this as an "approval copy" from a music store: a chance to look something over before you buy. You must get permission to use this song, even though it is not published (though who knows, it might be by the time it comes to you.) You need permission to make copies, permission to perform, permission to make changes (arrange). It is possible, though, that the name, address and phone number of the composer are not on the music. That makes things harder, but does not change our responsibilities. Ask the person you got it from to ask the person they got it from, to remember which choir sang it, etc. Follow all clues until you track the composer down.

Search ASCAP and BMI (links below) to find out if they have an address and/or phone number for the copyright holder (who won't necessarily be the composer or the arranger). Then, when you (with permission) make your copies, add a note to the score: "Property of (your choir). Used by permission of Name, Address, Phone" which is copied onto every piece of music. (Copyright research is sort of like back country hiking: leave it cleaner than you found it.)

Interlude for composers and arrangers

Make it easy for people to find you and harder for them to rip you off: put your name, address and phone number on your music, and not on the edge of the page where copy machines cut it off. If you move often, consider a professional P.O. Box. If you arrange, be sure you have legal permission to arrange and to sell or share your arrangement. Again, standard permission to arrange usually is for your own, non-commercial use.

4. you have a recording of a song and figure you can transcribe the arrangement. Ask permission from the artist; the song may be published and you'll be saved the work, but either way, somebody owns that arrangement and you must ask/pay for its use. Just think, you might be the fourth request that inspires someone to publish a songbook.

5. you have a recording or score of a solo version and want to arrange it for the choir. Get permission from the copyright holder and be sure to ask permission to use the arrangement the way you want to: to perform in a concert to which admission is charged, to give the arrangement away to other women's choirs or to sell your arrangement (or publish your arrangement). See interlude for composer and arrangers.

6. you are ready to perform a song in concert and now have legal copies in hand. ASCAP and BMI are the two major performing rights organizations in the U.S. If your choir produces concerts, you should have an agreement with each. Most choirs pay a blanket fee for the year to cover their performing rights.

ASCAP; One Lincoln Plaza, New York, NY 10023; 1-212-595-3050
BMI; 320 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019; 1-212-586-2000
SOCAN (Canadian) Head Office: 41 Valleybrook Drive, Toronto, ON M3B 2S6 Phone: (416) 445-8700

Performance fees are based on highest admission fee and the seating in the hall. Fees still are due on free events. You do not need to pay ASCAP/BMI fees if you are singing in a concert produced by another organization. In this case the producing organization is responsible to pay those fees.

7. you want to make a CD for sale. The Harry Fox Agency in New York City is your central resource for obtaining the mechanical licenses required for recordings. [note: also see the GALA Resource Center for help in obtaining and mechanical license.

A lot of work? Well, yes it is, but it is how we can support working composers and arrangers. Remember to give yourself lots of time; the people you are calling or writing to may not love this detail work any more than you do, even though it is to their benefit. But it is wonderful to get letters back from a composer who is delighted that you admire her work, and to discover that she has three other pieces that you might like to see. Honoring the copyright honors the composer and helps our sisters continue to create music for us.

What should you pay for music? Fees vary. Some composers/arrangers want you to make a contribution to a cause related to the song or will give you permission to arrange or perform without charge. You may encounter a composer who has never charged anyone but wants to move into a professional position or one who has a set fee. Most, composers and arrangers like to receive a copy of your concert program or a tape of the performance, if available.

Useful Web sites:

Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States A chart detailing what is and isn't in Public Domain in the US. You can use it on the Web, or print out a PDF file.

ChoralNet also has some excellent resources on Copyright and Licensing