With Respect to Copyright

SBO Staff • ChoralMarch 2015Opening Notes • April 9, 2015

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With the recent headlines about the $7.3 million dollar verdict against Robin Thicke and Pharrell for their song “Blurred Lines” and its now-decided infringement case from the estate of the late, great Marvin Gaye for his song “Got to Give It Up,” it seems a good time to talk about respecting the oh-so-complicated world of music when it comes to copyrights.

In this day and age, when everything is instantly shared on the Internet – from sound recordings to text, to photos, to, well, anything that can be digitized – it’s not always an easy feat to explain copyright laws to your students. They genuinely might not understand what may constitute infringement, and frankly, the “Blurred Lines” case isn’t a good one to try to use to illustrate what is and isn’t infringement.

I could write an entire issue about copyright law, the various kinds of protections offered to musicians and songwriters, and the types of infringements they potentially face. I once signed a really good book, by David Moser called Moser on Music Copyright, which was updated in 2011. It’s a pretty good place to start for authoritative information on the subject. Moser is, without a doubt, an expert. 

Among the many titles I signed for Hal Leonard was one called The Teacher’s Guide to Music, Media, and Copyright Law by James Frankel, which came out in 2009. There are a lot of great books out there on copyright for educators, and music copyright in particular. My advice is to always buy the latest edition to stay up on the laws. Without a good foundation in copyright basics, it’s going to be hard for you as a music educator to share your thoughts on this complicated subject, especially with your choral students who might ask your opinion on the “Blurred Lines” case, or any other for that matter.

A good place to start is simply explaining to your students that someone created each piece of music that they perform. Even the music that is in the public domain, because it is sometimes centuries old, is likely arranged for your choir by somebody who is not centuries old, who had to invest time to arrange it, to make the score by doing the engraving work, and pay to print it on paper. Each copy of the sheet music purchased from the publisher helps to pay that person for the work they did in taking “some ancient choral piece” and transforming it into a useable format for programming in your modern choir.

So, when your student is tempted to just photocopy a missing page of sheet music from another, and doesn’t understand why you wouldn’t just do that for expedience sake versus taking care of your investment in sheet music purchased for your program, you’ve got a great opportunity to start them on their way to understanding why we have copyright laws. Purchasing the sheet music you use rewards somebody’s vocation as a musician, an arranger, an engraver, a graphic artist, a printer, a publisher, a sales person, a person working in a warehouse, an IT person facilitating a website and sales purchasing system, a company delivering printed sheet music, a web hosting company facilitating digital delivery, a credit card company processing the financial transactions, and so on.

True, this particular example doesn’t begin to explain the verdict for “Blurred Lines,” as a different type of infringement was being litigated, but it might begin to form a foundation of understanding and respecting the creative work that people do, and how it should be valued and protected. 

Copyright law is a complicated business. Lawyers make millions keeping it complicated. Artists, hopefully, are rewarded at some level for their creative work, and copyright laws are a gigantic part of why they are able to be financially compensated to begin with. And it’s not just the guys with hit records; it’s the little guys who show up in a cubicle every day at a print music publisher’s office to create the music your students perform and you are programming. 

Mike Lawson

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