Help:Can modern editions of public domain music be copyrighted?

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Yes - a new edition of an old piece can have its own copyright, even if the original piece is in the public domain. However, generally there has to be significant artistic or editorial content to make an edition copyrightable.

There is a spectrum of possibilities, and the problem for the choral director is that most editions of older music fall somewhere in between being uncopyrightable and being fully copyrightable. Add in the problem that almost all music today has a copyright notice (whether that notice is valid or not) and it gets very complicated. At the end of the day, it's usually easiest to err on the side of caution and simply assume that all edited music is protected by copyright.

The situation in general is as follows:

  • Old editions with expired copyright are not copyrightable.
  • Republications of old public domain editions which use the original engravings are not copyrightable.
  • New editions which are based on public domain music and add no other editorial content are probably not copyrightable.
  • There are also editions which include new editorial explanations, piano reductions, translations and other added aspects. These added aspects are copyrightable - but, if you copy or perform an edition without using these additions, it might be difficult to prove that you have violated copyright law. Nevertheless, you certainly could be sued, and the resulting cost could be great, whatever the outcome.
  • Full-blown new arrangements based on public domain works are fully copyrightable and can't be copied unless permission is granted by the copyright holder.


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