Copyright and Sheet Music

When we are handed a sheaf of photocopied sheet music for us to work with how many of us question if this is OK, or wonder whether the composer or writer is receiving fair payment for their work. Are we ever allowed to make photocopies of sheet music? What would happen if we were caught making illegal copies and for that matter, who does the catching and how?

Rebecca Foulcher is Licensing Services Manager of the Australian Performing Right Association and the Australasian Mechanical Copyright Owners Society (helpfully shortened to APRA|AMCOS). She helps us navigate the issues.

Q. What you should do if you have a few possibly illegal photocopies in your music library?

Legally, you should dispose of any illegal photocopies in your collection, it’s a wrench I know, but that’s what you should do.

What we try to get across to community groups is that we’re not the copyright police. If it did come down to any breaches of copyright action in relation to printed music it would actually be the copyright owners who would take any necessary action. It wouldn’t be APRA|AMCOS because we don’t actually own the copyright in print music, we just act as the conduit between the users and the creators.

Q. So who is it that goes around auditing music libraries?

There’s not one body that goes around auditing music libraries as such. We or the publishers are usually notified of copyright breaches by members of the general public.

Q. We hear horror stories about people being the subject of legal action and being heavily fined because they have had photocopies in their music library. Has this ever happened?

There was a very high profile case from the early nineties where it came to the copyright owners’ attention that a large community youth choral association was photocopying books of music to sell to their choristers. That’s where they really went wrong because this was such an obvious breach of copyright. In the end the association was quite heavily fined. We (APRA|AMCOS) were involved in that case from the point of view of representing the publishers’ interests. This was a worst case scenario. It rarely happens quite like that.

Q. How, then, might it usually happen?

From my personal experience, it’s rare for publishers to just go in for the kill. They are more likely to send a letter saying: “We’ve become aware that this is happening. Here’s our invoice for what we think is fair. Please contact us to discuss.” I’ve seen a few of those.

Just as an example, last Christmas there was a local councillor who sent out Christmas carol lyric booklets to 40,000 of her constituents. Not realising that ‘Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer’ is still in copyright, so is ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’. We were alerted to that and we sent that information to the publishers.

She made a genuine error and the publisher made a huge concession on what they would normally charge, but in this case, because the number of copies was so high, it still added up to a significant amount of money.

Community organisations need to be aware of their copyright obligations. That’s where AMCOS comes in handy. We’re here to tell you what you need to do in order to be copyright compliant so that you can feel comfortable that you are doing the right thing.

Q. So if a person approaches you with a copyright question, you won’t pass on their details to the music publishers. You won’t dob them in?

That’s right! We’re very happy for anyone to get in contact with us if they have any questions about the copyright status of a piece. We have a free research service for community groups. We’ll let you know what works are completely free of copyright or we’ll let you know the name of the publisher you need to contact to purchase or license copies of the work. If you want us to, we can contact the publishers for you, but only if you give us permission because our privacy policy prevents us from passing on your details without your permission.

When you ring up or email your questions you’ll be speaking to someone in Print Music and Educational Licensing. And that will be either myself or Rebecca (that’s right we’re both Rebeccas just to make it easier!) When you call asking about the copyright status of a work please make sure you have the title, the composer’s name and if possible the date of the edition.

Q. Can I ask you a few specific questions that have been put to me by our members: If a group, say a community choir, has purchased 30 copies of a piece of music, how many photocopies can they make?

This is a common question and a common misconception. Community organisations cannot make photocopies of print music, regardless of the number of legitimate copies they hold.

Currently, schools are the only bodies that have a license with APRA|AMCOS with a print music concession. That’s only primary and secondary schools, not tertiary institutions, such as the Conservatorium. The APRA|AMCOS agreement with universities does not include a print music concession.

I get a lot of phone calls from community groups saying “I hear that there is a photocopying license that you have for community music groups” and I have to tell them it does not exist. We’ve approached the publishers several times about a licensing arrangement for community music groups and thus far we’ve not been successful.

Q. Often, groups have made their own arrangements of works that may still be in copyright. What happens when they apply to have their arrangement licensed?

Quite often the publisher will say “give us six to eight weeks” and quite often they’ll want to actually see the arrangement before they authorise it, which is a lot of work with the possibility of it getting knocked back.

Another thing that I can’t tell you is how much they are likely to charge. We get asked that a lot. I’ve heard stories of from $100 for an arrangement to $2000. There’s no norm.

What I can say though is being seen to be doing the right thing in advance puts you in a much better bargaining position than if you have been caught out after, for instance, a concert has taken place.

Q. So it’s always better to be proactive about these things? It’s better to make the first move and approach APRA|AMCOS or the publishers?

Absolutely, and you should also remember that the people you are dealing with at the publishing companies are just people. You’re not talking to the CEO or the General Manager or the Legal Officer when you’re talking to these publishers. They’re normal people and they are reasonable. They have a set of criteria that governs what they can and cannot do but if you’re trying to do the right thing then they’re usually quite understanding.

Useful Links

For further information about print music and copyright and to be absolutely sure of your responsibilities download this excellent publication from APRA|AMCOS “A practical copyright guide to the use of print music in Australia”. It is well written in easy to read plain english, and contains a comprehensive list of frequently asked questions. is the website of the Australian Copyright Council. They provide information, advice and training about copyright in Australia.

See in particular their information sheets (free) and their practical guides (for sale) for non-profit organisations.