Photocopying Choral Sheet Music: What Should I Do?


Do Not Copy2A recent forum thread on has generated much discussion and interest on the issue of the legality of photocopying choral music [the link no longer works so I have removed it]. As this is a pertinent issue for music teachers, church musicians, and really anyone that is dealing with sheet music at anytime, I have decided to weigh in on the issue with some of my thoughts. However, the legal issues have been largely discussed, written about, and clarified many times over (in many places), and so I will be approaching the issue from a more practical standpoint. I hope it can be of some help for those who may not be so sure how to approach the issue and enlightening for those who may not thought about it. There are other legal music issues that can also be discussed, such as performance royalties, mechanical licenses, etc…, but this post will focus exclusively on sheet music. (I have also posted this post on another blog of mine, Michael’s Whole Notes, that is being used for a class.)

Copyright law can appear daunting and intimidating at times, especially to young music teachers. There are lawyers that make careers specifically working with copyright law for a reason. However, if one follows the guidelines I lay out here, I believe one would be in compliance nearly all of the time (I don’t write 100%, because it is always possible to make an ignorant mistake, which of course should be rectified if learned about).

In this post I will refer to any printed score (whether from a composer, publisher, or photocopied yourself) as a copy.


I am not a lawyer. What I write should not be considered legal advice, nor as a final say in any way. 

The Fundamental Principle When Dealing With Sheet Music

*Purchase or acquire usage rights to EVERY copy of music you possess.*

In my opinion, this is the simple idea that drives sheet music copyright law. If you bought one copy of a piece of music, you only use/have one copy. If you bought fifteen copies, you only use/have fifteen copies. In other words, you pay for your product or license. If it is free, you acquire permission for use. I would dare to guess that 90% of sheet music copyright issues can be taken care of by applying this one principle. I’ll share later what to do with the other 10% of the issues.

A person may think, what does it matter if I purchase six copies of a score and then make 20 more copies of my own? The company or composer still gets paid some money, and the music gets learned and performed? That is good right? And besides it only represents a few dollars.

The truth is that this is not right.

Consider this. Lets say you own an apple orchard that specializes in selling a few apples at a time primarily to tourists who want a tasty and healthy snack. We’ll say the average sale is ten apples. Part of the experience allows for visitors to walk through your orchard and see how meticulously it is cared for. However, most visitors are regularly picking an apple or two themselves when they go on the orchard tour. The extra apples seem insignificant to them, they are buying ten apples after all, and everyone seems to be doing it. Yet when you do your accounting, you discover that you had 20,000 visitors who besides buying apples, also took one or two each during the tour, meaning that around 30,000 apples were taken from your orchard for which no one paid. This becomes a significant financial hit for you. This would not have happened if the visitors applied the principle that says, “if I have it, I bought it.”

Though not a perfect analogy, this is regularly happening with sheet music. One composer on the above mentioned choralnet forum thread (see link) wrote this: “I estimate that I lose about $10,000 per year due to the illegal stealing of my intellectual property, either via photocopying, avoidance of performance fees and avoidance of paying mechanical licenses for recordings. $10,000 EVERY YEAR  is a lot of money to me and my family and I become very frustrated and angry when I think about it. Every living composer I know is suffering from this and every one of those composers is a real person, with monthly bills, many with families to support just like everyone else. Publishers are, of course, also affected and are struggling to stay in business.”

Sometimes photocopying is legal. Many websites, like,, other companies, and many composers, including myself, regularly retail digital scores. Purchasers there buy a pdf file and a license which gives them rights to print/copy the purchased number of the file. If you bought rights to 40 copies, you can legally print/photocopy and use 40 copies. If you print/photocopy a 41st copy however, you are now taking an extra “apple.”

I hope readers are seeing how easy copyright law is to comply with. It is thoroughly based on common sense.

A Note

I have found that most people that have been acting out of ignorance in taking extra “apples” of music. When I’ve explained the situation to them, most are happy to reform and do things the right way.

What About Complicated Situations?

For the 10% of the time (or less) that it may not be clear what to do in a copyright situation, the best thing is to contact the publisher, distributor, or composer you bought the music from and let them tell you exactly what you can do in a situation. If you are dealing with a special case that you can not contact the original retailer or copyright owner, you can contact a lawyer, or even a music retailer for advice (who would be likely willing to advise someone trying to do the right thing). There is no reason not to know what to do in a situation.

Here is an example of a somewhat complicated situation (that in reality was not that complex). When I was in graduate school, I had an assistantship in the choral department. We had ordered a particular piece of music from a publisher which was on back order, meaning the piece would not be arriving for several weeks. However it was needed for use more quickly than that by one of the choirs. We had one score in our possession that had been used for perusal purposes. By calling the publisher, we obtained permission to make 100 copies (or some similar number) of the piece, which was the number we had purchased, with the agreement that we would destroy the photocopies as soon as the order arrived. They gave us a long numbers and letters code to print on the copies along with the words “copied by permission…” for reference purposes. The actual copies did eventually arrive and we destroyed the photocopies as directed.

Another situation happened when I wanted to use and perform an out-of-print piece for a Christmas program with a choir. I had one score in my possession. I contacted the publisher, who gave permission to photocopy the piece of music for a price and again the inclusion of the words “copied by permission…” and a reference number. Like the previous situation, the key was to contact the proper person (a publisher in both of these cases) for information about how to proceed.

Remember, copyright law for sheet music, though very nuanced and complex at times, in practice can nearly always be followed by applying the simple principle of “purchase or acquire usage rights for every copy of music you possess. For the rare times the situation is not clear, there are many places to obtain advice/permission specific to your situation.

I hope this has been informative and helpful for music teachers, directors, performers, and anyone else who may be interested.



Photocopying Choral Sheet Music: What Should I Do? — 2 Comments

  1. Excellent article. I followed the discussion on choralnet. Sometimes copyright law is as clear as mud but this is a great help. I left a startup choir this year partly because they were using photocopies so they wouldn’t have to charge people a fee for music!

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