Creatives and Copyright

Creatives and Copyright - what you need to know | @ashleydanyew

Copyright. It's a sticky subject and one not often taught in school. What does the law say? How does it affect what we do as musicians, freelancers, artists, and small business owners? Here's what you need to know:

First, what is copyright law and why does it exist?

The purpose of copyright law is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” (Article I, Section 8, clause 8, The United States Constitution). Copyright law protects anything with intellectual property rights. This includes poetry, books, photographs, art, hymn texts, song lyrics, music, and more. 

Public Domain

Works published before 1923 (or first published in the U.S. between 1923 and 1963 without copyright renewal), are almost guaranteed to be public domain.

Works published by an individual after 1923, with proper copyright renewal, will remain under copyright for the length of that person's life plus 70 years.

Works published by a corporation after 1923, with no author listed, will remain under copyright for 95 years after publication. Read more about this here.

Creatives and copyright - what you need to know | @ashleydanyew


For those of you who work in churches, you know that most churches have a Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) license (for more about CCLI, visit their website). CCLI has several different licenses and services, but with the basic Church Copyright License, you can

•  print songs, hymns and lyrics in bulletins and on song sheets for congregational singing;
•  compile your own songbooks for congregational singing;
•  create overhead transparencies or slides of songs and/or lyrics;
•  arrange, print, and copy your own vocal or instrumental arrangements of songs (in the CCLI database) for congregational use;
•  record worship services (audio or video);
•  translate songs into another language; and •  reproduce accompaniment tracks.

This license does not permit you to

•  photocopy or duplicate octavos, cantatas, musicals, handbell music, keyboard arrangements, vocal scores, orchestrations or other instrumental works; or
•  rent, sell, lend, or distribute copies made under your church's license to individuals or groups outside the church, or other churches (though you can share recordings to shut-ins or others outside the church).

Creatives and Copyright - what you need to know | @ashleydanyew

Fair Use

All's fair in love and... copyright? Not quite.

What is fair use? The Presbyterian Association of Musicians notes: "Fair use is established by statute and interpreted by the court which permits portions of copyrighted works to be legally reproduced for purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, classroom teaching, scholarship, and research. In no instance does this apply to a performance."

Fair use covers use that is considered creative and transformative, meaning you are adding value to and building upon the original work. Fair use includes reproducing and distributing

•  single articles or chapters from longer works (those with 10 or more chapters) or no more than 10% of shorter works (those with 9 or fewer chapters);
•  several charts, graphs, or illustrations; and
•  small parts (no more than 10%) of audio and video performances.

Be sure to include the copyright notice on the original and an appropriate attribution to the original source.

For those of you that work in education, use this handy fair use analysis calculator to see if your use qualifies for a copyright exception.

Creatives and Copyright - what you need to know | @ashleydanyew

What does this mean for you?

You're a church musician. You want to create your own hymn arrangement for your choir to sing next Christmas.

You have a few options: (1) if your church has a CCLI license, you can freely arrange music from the CCLI database; (2) look for tunes and texts published before 1923 (some great public domain music resources include CPDL and IMSLP); or (3) just ask permission from the copyright holder first.

You're a calligrapher. You just received a custom order request to create a print using the lyrics from "Goodnight" by the Beatles.

Since this song is under copyright, you need permission from the copyright holder, even if you're only using a fragment of the text and even if you give the author credit. Supposedly, you don't need permission if you're just lettering the title - for instance, "Let It Be" (source). Don't want to go that route? Try searching for a similar text in the public domain. Some great resources include Project, and

You're a freelance musician. Your string quartet just got hired to play a wedding this summer. The bride requested an arrangement of an Ingrid Michelson song for the ceremony, but you're having trouble finding an arrangement for your ensemble.

Despite the number of groups out there that offer to "create custom arrangements of any piece" (without a permission contingency), you must have permission from the copyright holder for works that are under copyright. The good news is, once you have permission and a solid arrangement, you can add it to your rep. list for future gigs.

You're a small business owner. You make digital graphics for your blog and print graphics for marketing and self promotion posters.

When it comes to photographs, copyright law still applies. You have two main options: (1) public domain stock photos (here's a great list of websites) or (2) Creative Commons. Creative Commons sources images from Flickr and Google Images (among others) for you to use on your blog or for your business - and most are free! Read more about Creative Commons here.


Like I said, it's a sticky subject. But I believe it's our job as creatives, artists, and small business owners to be informed, know the law, and do what's right. Hope this post helps you do just that!

Read more:
Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the U.S. (Cornell University)
Public Domain (IMSLP)
Copyright Information for Churches (New England Conference of the United Methodist Church)
The Church Musician and Copyright Law (Presbyterian Association of Musicians)
Fair Use (Purdue University)
Copyright Crash Course: Fair Use of Copyrighted Materials (University of Texas)

P.S. Looking to copyright your own music? Here's a helpful step-by-step guide.