Understanding copyright law and licensing issues for choirs

Keen to support their choir members and help them practise many choir leaders unwittingly break the law in providing CDs, MP3s, sheet music or even lyric sheets for their students.

Music copyright can be confusing at first but we promise it’s nowhere near as bad as doing your tax return!

How to avoid breaking the law as a choir leader

Understanding a little about music copyright is the first step towards compliance. To help we’ve compiled this handy guide to copyright. We’ve tried to keep the explanation as simple as possible. And whilst there is a little jargon this is inevitable when talking about legal matters.

The good news is that if you are using Choir Player you are totally legal as we have sorted all the licensing and copyright out for you!

Read on for a simple explanation of copyright law and how it applies to you as a choir leader.

A simple guide to music copyright

Music includes up to four separate kinds of copyright:
• The copyright in the composition of the song
• The copyright in any new arrangement of the song which significantly differs from the original (e.g. a choral arrangement)
• The copyright in the sheet music of the composition and arrangement of the song
• The copyright in the recording of the song

We’ll take a look at each of these in more detail and then consider how these copyrights affect choir leaders and their members.

Composition rights

  • Includes both music and lyrics
  • Owned by the writer(s) of the song
  • Song-writers usually license their copyrights to a music publisher who registers and protects the copyrights and collects any royalties due to the writer(s).
  • Song-writers earn royalties from various sources including record sales, broadcasting, advertising, internet use and public performance.
  • Some older songs may be out of copyright (often referred to as being “in the Public Domain”). This varies from country to country. In the UK it’s 70 years after the death of the last surviving writer.

Arrangement rights

  • New arrangements of songs do not count as compositions unless the original song is in the Public Domain (see above).
  • If the original song is in the Public Domain, the arranger of the new version will enjoy all the composition rights of the original song but only for the particular arrangement they have created.
  • Although the original song may be in the Public Domain, the new arrangement might not be. In the UK the new arrangement will only enter the Public Domain 70 years after the death of the last surviving arranger.

Sheet music rights

  • Also known as “Print Rights”.
  • Sheet music rights are owned by the writer or arranger and like composition rights are usually administered by a music publisher.
  • New arrangements enjoy sheet music rights even if the original song is not yet in the Public Domain.
  • Sheet music rights apply to both music and lyrics.

Recording Rights

  • Also known as “Master Rights”
  • Owned by whoever made and /or played on any particular recording of a song
  • Recording artists and record producers typically licence their master rights to a record label
  • Hired musicians (session musicians) usually sell their master rights to the record label for a one-off fee.
  • Although public domain laws do apply to particular recordings the time period is very long and for all practical purposes can be ignored right now.

What can choir leaders do that is legal in relation to copyright?

Let’s start with the good news…

Public Performance

  • The public performance of copyrighted music is the responsibility of the venue. Most venues know this and operate under a PRS licence.
  • If you are sharing in the proceeds of an event, then it is perfectly legitimate for the promoter or venue to deduct the PRS fee as a cost.


  • Like venues, radio and TV stations are responsible and should have a PRS licence


  • If you put your music on the internet we recommend it is hosted by a licensed platform like YouTube. The licensed platform will pay the copyright owners.
  • But if you put it directly on to a website or on an unlicensed platform you may be in breach of Copyright Law.

What choir leaders do that breaks copyright law

Now the bad news. What you CAN’T do.


The unauthorised duplication of copyrighted songs, arrangements and recordings by any means including CDs, MP3s or file sharing is a breach of Copyright Law.

Sheet music

  • The unauthorised duplication of sheet music is similarly a breach of Copyright Law. However many legitimate sellers will grant you a licence to make a limited amount of copies. Always check the small print!
  • Remember that lyrics are part of sheet music, so unauthorised printing of lyric sheets is also illegal.

What is the situation with Choir Player?

Compositions and arrangements

  • Choir Player is licensed by MCPS and your downloads are perfectly legal
  • However it is not legal for you to duplicate them. Under our choir scheme each choir member is individually licensed.


  • We record most of our songs in our own studios and therefore own the Master Rights.
  • Anything we do not record ourselves is licensed to us by the Master Rights Holders.
  • We authorise you to use any part of our recordings, including the backing track as part of your performance.
  • As with compositions it is not legal for you to duplicate our recordings. Under our choir scheme each choir member is individually licensed.

Sheet  music

  • We only provide links for the purchase of sheet music from fully authorised and legal sellers.
  • We recommend you check that other sellers are legitimate.



Disclaimer: The above article is for general information only and does not constitute legal advice. Choir Player cannot take responsibility for readers’ legal matters or any other issues arising from this article.

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