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Old sheet music

Posted: Sun Nov 06, 2011 3:16 pm
by Chris K

I've got quite a lot of original sheet music which was mostly published in the first half of the last century. I don't want to part with it, but I'm wondering if I would be able to list it on a web site and make it available for downloading? It's mostly well-known song music such as Somewhere Over the Rainbow, for which I've got the original sheet music published in 1939, White Christmas 1942 etc.

Thank you to anyone who can advise.

Posted: Sun Nov 06, 2011 4:43 pm
by AndyJ
Hi Chris,
Sheet music is protected by copyright in two specific ways: the music itself is one of the fundamental types of creative work (the others being literature, drama and art) protected by copyright. Normally the composer and lyricist will be the first owners of the copyright and the term of the copyright is determined by the date of death of whichever lives the longest, plus either 50 or 70 years. If the work in question was still in copyright in August 1989, then the term is life + 70 years; if the composer or lyricist died before 1938 then the previous term of 50 years would have expired by the time the 1988 Copyright Designs and Patents Act came into force, and so the work would now be out of copyright.
The second way in which printed sheet music is protected is in the typopgrahical layout of an edition. This lasts for 25 years from the end of the year that the specific edition was first published. So in the case of the two examples you quote, copyright in the typographical layout ended a long time ago.
But returning to the copyright in the music, in both cases you quoted, the copyright term has some way to go yet. The music for Over the Rainbow was written by Harold Arlen who died in 1986 and the lyrics by Edgar 'Yip' Harburg who died in 1981. So Arlen's date of death is the relevant one for determining when the work will enter the public domain in the UK, namely 1 January 2057. Irving Berlin wrote both the words and music for White Christmas and he died in 1989, so that song will not come into the public domain until 1 January 2060.
You will need to go through this process for each of the songs for which you have the sheet music to find out if any of it is now out of copyright, but if it is mainly from the 1930s and 1940s, it seems unlikely that much will be.

Posted: Sun Nov 06, 2011 4:51 pm
by Chris K
I think that's the clearest explanation I've ever read about copyright of published music! Thank you so much, I understand it perfectly!

Posted: Thu Nov 10, 2011 11:24 am
by Chris K
Andy, can I just double-check something please... when you said "if the composer or lyricist died before 1938", did you mean 1988 as that would tie in with the Act?

Posted: Thu Nov 10, 2011 11:26 pm
by AndyJ
Hi Chris,
No I do mean prior to 1938. If someone died in 1937 the law at the time (the 1911 Copyright Act) stated that copyight extended for 50 years from the end of the year in which the person died, hence it would run to I January1988 and would have lapsed before the new 70 years after death term came into force on 1 August 1989. For someone who died in 1939 or later, the 50 year period would still be running on 1 August 1989, and so their estate would benefit from the extra twenty years the work was in copyright.

Posted: Thu Nov 10, 2011 11:39 pm
by Chris K
Ah yes, I see, thank you Andy.

Posted: Wed Nov 16, 2011 1:57 am
by Chris K
Hi again

One of the publishers has responded to my enquiry about a piece that was published in 1937. They've said they registered it in 1937 and renewed it in 1965; and that copyright will therefore expire 97 years after the original copyright date, ie 2032. I don't understand the arithmetic of this statement. Also... I understand that they can renew copyright, giving them the right to continue publishing the music, but can they retain copyright on the original typographical/reprographic work (ie the 1937 sheet music that I hold)?

I had asked them if they knew when the arranger had died (assuming he had) but they haven't answered that question.

A different publisher has said that a musical work that had been assigned to the publisher would be copyright protected for the life of the copyright of the work, and that the publisher would have the publishing rights during that period. They've said that their copyright would run for the same period as the composer's/arranger's, ie 70 years after his/her death.

Any advice on either of these two situations would be appreciated.

Posted: Thu Nov 17, 2011 12:17 am
by AndyJ
Hi Chris,
From what you have said it sounds like the first publisher is talking about US copyright law, which is very complicated, and does not apply here in the UK.
So just for interest's sake, here is a brief overview of how the US system works:
Prior to 1978 registration was mandatory in the USA to gain copyright protection, and this had to be renewed in the 28th year to gain the maximum of 95 years from publication. The date of death of the author was not relevant in those cases. Then in 1998 the Sonny Bono Term Extension Act was passed and this increased the term for most kinds of eligible work which were still in copyright to the author's life plus 70 years, similar to that which applies in the UK. But where the author of the work was under contract to (or directly employed by) a company such as a music publisher or record company, this work is known as 'work for hire' and the copyright term is 120 years from the year of creation or 95 years from the year of first publication, which ever is the shorter. Again the lifespan of the actual author is immaterial. This is the arrangement the first publsiher is referring to, although I'm baffled by why they say it is 97 years and not 95 as section 302 of their Copyright Act says. However it's pretty academic since it doesn't apply here in the UK.

The second publisher would appear to also be referring to US law, but in this case the work was not done 'for hire' so the author's life plus 70 years rule applies. However they have not mentioned if originally the work was correctly registered and renewed at the appropriate time. Works published before 1964 but not renewed 28 years later (and there are a lot) are in the public domain. However as with the first music publisher all this applies to the USA, not the UK.

UK law says (in Section 12(6):
(6) Where the country of origin of the work is not an European Economic Area state and the author of the work is not a national of an EEA state, the duration of copyright is that to which the work is entitled in the country of origin, provided that does not exceed the period which would apply under subsections (2) to (5).
in other words as the UK term in these cases is shorter than that which would operate in the USA, the UK term is the one which applies in the UK.

But a final word of warning. Large American corporations (and to a lesser extent the US Courts) sometimes treat internet sites which are available in the US as being subject to US law and may try to sue you in the US courts, obviously using their law as the yardstick. This is not a problem if you have no assets in the US for them to seize and you have no plans to travel there. As an indication of how seriously they take all this, the US Department of Justice Immigration and Customs Enforcement division and the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center have recently closed down sites which were alleged to be hosting infringing copyright works (mainly pirated films, games and music) without going through the courts to establish if the allegations were true. There is further legislation going through Congress at the moment (the so-called Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act) which make this kind of unilteral action increasingly likely in the future. So make sure that any servers which will host your site are not located in the USA.

Posted: Thu Nov 17, 2011 1:06 am
by Chris K
That's really helpful and thanks for taking the time to explain that. The first publisher is definitely in the US; I'm not sure about the second one.

I'll contact the publishers again to clarify that I'm in the UK and to see if they back down, but if not... well there's no point starting a battle that I'm not likely to win.

I've done my best to find out from internet research, and where that's failed, contacting publishers to check when composers etc died, and unfortunately it means that most of the sheet music I've got isn't eligible. As far as the ones that I believe are eligible are concerned, I'll put a note on the web site saying that to the best of my knowledge the works are out of copyright, but that if any publisher can still claim copyright, if they contact me to let me know, I'll remove it immediately. Hopefully this will avoid any repercussions.

Thanks again for your helpful advice.