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Navigating Copyright During COVID-19

Chrissy Swearingen • CommentaryJanuary 2021 • January 8, 2021

Besides everything else, 2020 has brought us a rich new vocabulary of words and phrases we use daily, like “social distancing,” “asymptomatic” and “flatten the curve.” For music educators, the list might also include “virtual choir,” “bell cover,” and “choir mask!”

In addition to dealing with school budget cuts and how to teach kids remotely and/or in person during this pandemic, music teachers are now having to navigate the changing world of copyright licensing. Although securing copyright permission may seem like the least of your worries, it’s essential to make sure your virtual performance is licensed properly. The last thing you want after weeks of work is for your students’ videos to be flagged on YouTube for copyright infringement and taken down!

Unfortunately, music copyright law was not written with this current pandemic in mind. There are no special exemptions yet for virtual performances due to COVID-19. However, most music publishers realize how hard this is for educators and want to help as much as possible. They understand the needs and struggles of teachers and want to support both distance learning and copyright holders.

If you’re unsure of what you can and can’t do with copyrighted music in the virtual classroom, it’s best to check with the print publisher of the music, as each publisher may have their own guidelines. Hal Leonard, for example, has a whole list of Distance Learning FAQs for Educators.

In addition to guidelines for classroom use, publishers have also gotten creative with new and innovative digital products, product bundles and online resources to support educators. Hal Leonard also has a Distance Learning Solutions page (https://www.halleonard.com/distancelearning/) that showcases new products and affiliate websites such as Essential Elements Music Class Interactive, Digital Learning Voice Class, and Hal Leonard Digital Books that will make your transition to remote teaching a little easier. Also, our ArrangeMe platform (https://arrangeme.com) has a vast catalog of pre-approved songs that can be arranged and then sold online for no upfront cost to the arranger! This is an effective solution for creating a custom arrangement for a small or specialized group to meet your virtual ensemble needs.

After you’ve figured out how you’re going to teach the music to your students, you realize you need to showcase their talents with a performance too. Where do you even start? You can usually break down most online performances into three licenses you may need: performance, synchronization and master.

First, let’s look at the livestream performance only. For this you need a performance license through a Performance Rights Organization (PRO). The four main PROs in the U.S. are ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and GMR. Luckily, certain streaming sites such as Facebook and You-Tube already have blanket performance licenses. If you’re unsure if a site already has a performance license, it’s best to check directly with the PRO or the website. If you decide to livestream on a site that doesn’t already have a performance license, you will need to contact the PROs directly. (https://www.ascap.com/, https://www.bmi.com/, https://www.sesac.com, https://globalmusicrights.com).

A common question we hear is, “Do I also need a synchronization license for my livestream?” Two good questions to ask yourself are, “Could the performance ever be viewed again or at a later date?” and “Will the livestream link be kept on Facebook or YouTube for any period of time?” If the answer is yes, you should also secure a synchronization license, which leads us to our next example.

The second scenario would be to post a video recording of your musical performance. This could be a “virtual choir” where each member records on their own and the videos are combined together, a pre-recorded performance that is posted online, or a livestream performance that is archived. An audiovisual recording of a musical work that is posted online needs a performance license and a synchronization license.

A synchronization license must be obtained directly from the copyright owner or their administrator (also known as the music publisher). This should not be confused with a print music publisher, such as Hal Leonard or Alfred. A music publisher is the company that represents the copyright owner or songwriter, such as Walt Disney Music, Sony/ATV Music Publishing or Kobalt Music Publishing.

Finding the copyright administrator may seem intimidating at first, but there are some easy ways to go about this. Keep in mind that copyright owners/administrators may change over the years as music catalogs are acquired and sold. To find the current music publisher/administrator, look online at the PROs’ websites (ASCAP, BMI, etc.). They will usually provide current copyright owners and their contact information. Finally, you could contact the company that produced or distributed the printed music (sheet music). Even though they may not be able to issue you a synchronization license, they can point you in the right direction.

Finally, the third type of license you may need would be a master use license. This is when you have a performance and are using someone else’s audio recording for the accompaniment. For example, your choir might want to perform a Hal Leonard arrangement of “All You Need Is Love.” Instead of using your own accompanist, you might choose to use the Hal Leonard ShowTrax CD or digital recording. You can obtain a master license through the producer (copyright owner) of the actual recording (Hal Leonard in this example). Master licenses are more often needed by a choir or vocal group than an instrumental ensemble.

Now that you’ve read this and understand music licensing better, take a deep breath and give yourself a pat on the back. The fact that you found a way for your students to make music during this pandemic is remarkable, and there are many resources and publishers who want to help you share the music in a safe and legal way. We appreciate you for all you do, especially now when we need music more than ever before!

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