Music and copyright – a guide for students

Who owns copyright in music and sound recordings?
What can I copy?
Protecting your own work
Performing music
Recording performances

Who owns copyright in music and sound recordings?

Copyright in sound recordings and printed music is complicated because multiple copyright owners are often involved and industry agreements and practices frequently override copyright law.

The rules for the ownership of copyright in written or printed music differ from those for sound recordings.

Written and printed music

The Copyright Act uses the term ‘musical works’ to describe written music such as scores for orchestras, ensembles and operas, arrangements, notated music, printed sheet music and song lyrics.

This table sets out some of the copyright which can exist in a musical work, along with the copyright owners.


Copyright in musical works

 Copyright Owner
Music, score Composer
Arrangement Arranger - copyright will exist in new arrangements even if the music itself is out of copyright
Lyrics Lyricist
Editor's notes & comments Editor
Published edition - typesetting, layout only lasts for 25 years Publisher
Note: Copyright owners often assign copyright to their publishers in return for royalty payments.  

How long does copyright last in scores and lyrics?

Copyright in unpublished scores and lyrics lasts indefinitely. Once the work is published, copyright lasts for 70 years from the year the creator died or if not published during the creator’s life, 70 years from the end of the year of publication.

Copyright has expired in the works if the creator died before 1 January 1955, but remember that a current arrangement of an old score will still have copyright protection.

For more information, see Duration of copyright or consult the Australian Copyright Council’s information sheet Duration of copyright [G023]

Sound recordings and CDs

The Copyright Act uses the term ‘sound recording’ to cover recorded music i.e. music CDs and music in digital formats.

Copyright in sound recordings can be complicated as these are aggregated works which consist of a number of separate works and each work may have different copyright owners. There is also copyright in the sound recording itself. The table below provides more detail.


Copyright in sound recordings

Copyright Owner
Music Composer
Arrangement Arrangement
Lyrics Lyricist
Performer's rights Performers have limited rights in live performances recorded after  January 2005 
Sound recording - this copyright applies to the recording itself & is separate to any copyright in the material on the recording Unless there is an agreement to the contrary, the first owners of copyright in recordings made after 1 January 2005 are:
  • the person who owns the recording medium (such as the master tape)
  • performers, who have limited rights in the performance
Industry agreements & contracts often override copyright.
Individual performers often assign copyright to record companies.

How long does copyright last in a sound recording or CD?

Copyright lasts for 70 years from the end of the year in which the recording was first published.
Copyright has expired in sound recordings made before 1 January 1955, but some of the underlying works such as the score or arrangement may still be in copyright.

For more information, consult the Australian Copyright Council’s information sheet Duration of copyright [G023]

What can I copy?

For private use

The iPod exception

  • under s109A you can copy a sound recording or CD that you own into another format to play on a device that you own
  • you can make sequential copies, e.g. you can copy a CD you own to a computer’s hard drive and then copy that content to your iPod or other recordable medium to play on your car sound system
  • you must:
    own the original copy and it must be a legal copy
    own the device on which you will play the new sound file
    use the new sound file for your own private and domestic purposes only
    not remove copy protection devices to make the copy

For full information, see Private copying of music.


For research or study

Sheet music, scores

  • fair dealing provisions in the Copyright Act allow you to copy material for research or study including background research for an assignment or preparation of a thesis without infringing copyright.
  • you can copy a reasonable portion, which is one chapter, or 10% of the pages in a published work of more than ten pages.
  • if you need to copy more than a reasonable portion of a work, you may still be able to do this after considering the five factors to determine if the copying will be fair dealing.
  • it is unlikely that copying all of a five or six page score that is available for purchase would be considered fair dealing.
  • it is also unlikely that making multiple copies of a score to give to other members of a band or ensemble would be considered fair dealing if the score can be readily purchased or hired.

Sound recordings
The Copyright Act does not define the amount you can copy from a sound recording or CD under the fair dealing provisions.

  • you must consider the five factors before deciding if the copying you wish to do would be fair dealing.
  • you may be able to copy a limited portion, such as a single track from a CD, under the fair dealing provisions – remember to acknowledge the source.
  • it is unlikely that copying an entire CD that is available for purchase would be considered fair dealing.
  • under the Music Licence, the University can copy and distribute CDs from the societies’ repertoires for educational purposes. Your lecturer may be able to provide your class with copies of CDs relevant to your course.

Remember that the music industry takes a strong line on music piracy.

Downloading music from the internet
There are many internet sites offering free downloads of music, but unfortunately most of these are illegal. Much of the material on offer is pirated and has been made available without the copyright owner’s permission.

It can be very tempting to download music but you will be infringing copyright and committing a crime. The music, movie and software industries actively protect their intellectual property and use of file sharing services can be traced easily.
It’s best to use the more than 500 legitimate digital music services online, which offer millions of tracks. For more information on these alternatives to illegal downloads, go to Protecting yourself against legal action.

The University’s Policy on the Use of ICT Resources (pdf) prohibits the use of University ICT resources to download and store copyright material which is not properly licensed. The University reserves the right to monitor the use of these resources, and penalties can be imposed for improper use. These can include loss of access to ICT facilities, disciplinary action and even suspension of your candidature.

Don’t risk your career by illegal downloading of music, movies and software. Play it safe and use licensed, legal websites when you download.

Using samples in your work
Using quotes and samples from someone else’s music in your own works can be a risky business. As a student, you may be able to do this under the fair dealing exception if you acknowledge your sources. However, in the commercial world, you need to get a licence or face the risk of legal action.

Even the use of a few notes can get you into trouble as some famous musicians have found e.g. Bright Tunes Music v. Harrisongs Music where George Harrison was found to be liable for copyright infringement by incorporating a few notes (the musical essence) of the song He’s so fine in the Beatles hit My sweet lord.

Detailed information on many music copyright infringement cases is on the Copyright Infringement Project website hosted by UCLA Law School.

The Music Licence
This agreement is between Universities Australia & the four main music societies: AMCOS, APRA, ARIA and PPCA.

The Music Licence improves your access to recorded music by allowing:

  • University staff to copy CDs from ARIA’s repertoire and distribute them to students for educational purposes
  • staff to copy CDs and stream them to students - downloading is not permitted
  • the University to play recordings from the ARIA label list (pdf) at University Events.

The Music Licence allows students to:

  • synchronise sound recordings from the ARIA label list (pdf) with a video made for a University of Sydney course.
    Note that:
    there are labelling and marking requirements relating to the music included on a such a video, and students will need to obtain permission from the music copyright owners if the video is used for any external purpose, such as entering it in a public competition or uploading it to a public website.
  • perform APRA works for educational purposes, such as teaching exercises, rehearsals and assessment exercises
  • perform APRA works at University Events.


Protecting your own work

If you compose or record music, you need to think about the protection of your intellectual property: your creative work is valuable!
Here are a few points to consider:

  • you own copyright in any work produced while you are a student at the University, such as assignments and compositions
  • if you create or record work as part of a group, you need to reach agreement on the management of your intellectual property with the other members of the group
  • how do you want your music or recordings to be used? Is your goal to make money from the material or are you more interested in bringing your music to the attention of as many people as possible?
  • are you planning to make your work available on the internet? If so, decide if you want to control the way it is used or whether to allow others to adapt or change it, provided that you are acknowledged as the original composer or performer.
  • if you do follow the internet route, spell out the conditions of use on your website or consider whether a Creative Commons licence might meet your needs
  • include a © statement on your work, e.g. © John Smith 2007 - this doesn’t give you legal protection but it indicates that you claim to be the copyright owner
  • use the symbol for recording - see the ARIA & PPCA guide How to help safeguard copyright in your recordings (pdf) for details
  • if you are offered a contract with a music publisher or a record company you will probably be asked to assign some, or all, of your copyright to the publisher or company in return for royalty payments and other services. Seek advice before signing any agreements or contracts as these may be legally binding.


The music societies

The organisations listed below play an important role in representing the rights holders in their particular areas. If you publish your music or make recordings, you should consider joining the relevant society.

AMCOSAustralasian Mechanical Copyright Society

  • represents music publishers, composers, lyricists & songwriters
  • licenses mechanical reproduction of member’s works on CD, in music videos & DVDs, mobile phone ringtones and digital downloads, and collects and distributes royalties from these reproductions
  • you can join AMCOS if at least one of your works has been released for sale to the public.

APRA - Australasian Performing Rights Association

  • represents composers, lyricists, song writers & music publishers
  • licences live public performances and broadcasts of its members’ works and collects and distributes royalties from these uses
  • when you join APRA you usually assign your performance and communication rights to them in return for royalty payments
  • arranges joint licences with AMCOS & PPCA.

ARIA - Australian Recording Industry Association

  • represents and promotes the interests of the Australian recording industry
  • licenses the reproduction of members’ sound recordings for use in jukeboxes, in-flight audio programs and the creation of background music compilations for use by shops, cafes and pubs
  • offers licences in conjunction with other societies e.g., ARIA/AMCOS format shifting licence for DJs.

PPCA - Phonographic Performance Company of Australia Ltd

  • licences the playing of members’ sound recordings and music videos in public venues such as gyms and nightclubs
  • licenses the broadcasting of members’ sound recordings and music videos on radio, TV and music on hold
  • collects and distributes royalties for these uses
  • membership is free but you have to register new recordings with the PPCA.

Performing music

Performances under the Music Licence

  • you can perform a musical work in a class provided the class is being conducted for educational purposes and only Sydney University staff or students are present
  • the Music Licence allows you to perform APRA works for assessment purposes
  • you can also perform APRA works at a University Event such as graduations, exhibition openings or free recitals.


Public performances

This section covers performances outside the scope of the Music Licence.
Public performances arranged by the University where an entry fee is charged, are outside the scope of the Music Licence and an APRA/AMCOS licence will be needed if live music is to be performed.
If you are a member of an orchestra, an ensemble, a band or a solo performer, you will also need a licence from
APRA/AMCOS to perform music and lyrics in public. Any performance outside the home will probably be regarded as a public performance.

For more information, see Performing copyright works in public.

Issues you need to consider if you are part of a group or orchestra are:

  • who manages licences for the group (possibly the ensemble director, your agent or the event venue)
  • if no-one is responsible, delegate someone to follow up on this important task
  • always check with your agent or the event or venue manager that copyright and licences have been arranged – don’t just assume that it’s all OK
  • check if the performance is being recorded – this can bring up additional licence and performers’ rights issues.

Recording performances

Recording performances under the Music Licence

The Music Licence allows students and staff to make audio & video recordings of University Events, but:

  • you should always check with the event organiser before recording any performance
  • you should obtain a release form from the performers or check with their manager or ensemble director
  • there many musical works which aren’t covered by the Music Licence and the performance of these works can’t be recorded under the Licence – for more details see Performances excluded from the Music Licence
  • there are restrictions on the recording formats that you can use, as well as marking and labelling requirements - see Recording University events and performances
  • you can distribute copies to University staff, students and their immediate family for private and domestic purposes. The recordings must be supplied free of charge or on a cost-recovery basis.

Recording public performances

If you plan to record public performances outside the scope of the Music Licence, you will need the permission of the event or venue manager before recording.

If you are recording performances or organising recording sessions, you will need to arrange a licence from APRA/AMCOS to cover recording the music and lyrics for:

  • retail sale in shops or at an event
  • use as an audition or demonstration disc
  • provision of digital download services – you will also need a licence from the sound recording owner.

Performers’ rights

Performers may share the ownership of copyright in a sound recording of a live performance with the person or organisation who owns the recording medium e.g. the master tape.

You need to obtain permission from performers if you wish to record their live performances:

  • obtain a release form from individual performers including students
  • ensembles & orchestras usually have agreements in place to manage this – contact the director or agent first
  • some performances are exempt from performers’ rights making the issue of rights more complicated. For additional information see Australian Copyright Council Information Sheet on Performer’s Rights [G022] or contact the .

You have rights in your own performances and you should be consulted before a recording is made of your live performance unless you have already assigned the right to someone else.