Licensing of Music Copyrights

The term "copyright" refers to the exclusive rights of the author or creator of an original work, including the right to copy, distribute and adapt that work. These rights can be licensed, transferred and/or assigned.

Copyright protects original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, sound recordings, films, broadcasts and the typographical arrangement of a published edition (ie how it looks on the page). The legal framework for copyright in the UK is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 [CDPA] as amended.

Why is copyright important?

Copyright encourages a dynamic creative culture, returning value to creators, whilst providing for affordable access to content for the public. Copyright legislation provides a balance between the interests of those who invest skills and intellectual effort, time and money in the creation of works on one hand and those who want to use and enjoy those works on the other.

Copyright in a song

Every song comprises two copyright works:

  • The music itself (a musical work)
  • The lyrics/words (a literary work)


Copyright automatically subsists in a musical or literary work provided that it meets the following eligibility criteria:

  • The work work must be original in the sense that it has not been copied from any other work
  • The work must be recorded in writing or otherwise (eg onto CD, tape)
  • The writer is either a British Citizen or is domiciled or resident in the UK (or the work is first published in the UK or a country which has signed the Berne Convention)

Rights of the owner

Subject to certain limited exceptions set out in the CDPA, if you own the copyright in either type of work, you have the sole right do any of the following, or to authorise (eg by way of a licence or assignment) another to do so:

  • Copy the work
  • Issue, lend or rent copies of the work to the public
  • Perform, show or play the work in public
  • Communicate the work to the public (i.e. broadcast it via television, radio, online etc.)
  • Adapt the work

NB: Copyright can only be assigned in a written document that is signed by both parties.

Moral rights

If you are the composer of the music or the author of the lyrics, the CDPA also (subject to certain limited exceptions) provides you with a number of important moral rights, eg:

  • To be identified as the creator of the work (the paternity right, which must be asserted in writing)
  • To object to derogatory treatment of the work (the integrity right)

NB: Moral rights have no economic value. They cannot be assigned, but can be waived.

Arrangements, recordings and printed editions

The work of musical arrangers and editors also benefits from copyright protection.

If your work is subsequently recorded, the sound recording itself will have separate copyright protection. The producer of the recording will own the copyright in the sound recording.

If your work is published in a printed edition, the typographical arrangement of that printed edition will be separately protected and the publisher of that edition will own the copyright.

Terms of copyright

In the UK, copyright in a musical or literary work generally lasts for a period of 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the composer or author dies. A sound recording is generally protected for 50 years (about to be extended to 70 years) from the end of the year in which the recording is made and a typographical edition is generally protected for 25 years from the end of the year of publication.

Who should I contact?

Click here for a quick guide to who you should contact for permission to use music in a variety of ways.

Licensing in schools

The MPA has developed a licence that enables schools, under certain conditions, to copy and make arrangements of sheet music publications.

Click here for more information on copyright licensing in schools.

Copyright licensing for visually impaired people

The MPA has developed a licensing scheme under the Copyright (Visually Impaired Persons) Act 2002. The scheme governs multiple copying of printed music for the benefit of visually impaired people by educational and not for profit bodies in place of the Act.

Click here for more on copyright licensing for visually impaired people.