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Copyright Guide and How to Acquire Rights

This document was originally prepared by Rod Adams for BABS. This latest and major revision of the guide (September 2020) is by Mike Lofthouse (MAS).

The guide is produced with the intention of assisting club music librarians with the task of obtaining the relevant clearances on existing and new arrangements of a song and permissions to use and copy music for club use.


Whilst copyright can be a daunting and complicated area, the idea behind it is simple; it allows songwriters, composers, lyricists and arrangers to claim ownership over their work and get payments for their intellectual property.

Once anyone creates a piece of work, the creator(s) automatically have copyright over it – and they can copy it as many times as they want but anyone else has to pay for the right to use it. The copyright will last for 70 years after the last creator of the work has died.

After 70 years the music is ‘in the Public Domain’ (PD). This means you can freely make copies of the music.

There are also copyright extensions to many songs so please check carefully to be sure that a piece of music is really in the PD. MAS has contacts that can easily get this information.

Copyright rules

When a work is in copyright,:

  • you need permission to copy the lyrics in any way
  • you need permission to copy the sheet music in any way
  • you (or another arranger) need permission to arrange and copy the song for your group
  • and unless it is a ‘published’ (printed) copy you cannot sell, give away or swap an arrangement of the song

There are two forms of copyright.

Everything written so far in this section applies to Written music copyright. Mechanical copyright comes into play when music is sung in public and put on CD’s or DVD’s with the intention of selling these to the public.

Mechanical copyright is administered in the UK by Performing Right Society (PRS) and the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society (MCPS). In the majority of cases, music venues, village halls, pubs and other places where live music is performed will have a PRS Licence so you will just need to give them a list of songs you are performing with details of the composer/arranger. For other venues that do not have a licence it is responsibility of the Event Organiser to ensure PRS fees are paid.

If you are making a CD or DVD you need to get advice in advance from the company dealing with the production of the discs.

Published arrangements

These are often printed sheet music and you can buy the number of copies needed for your group. The cost of this includes the copyright.

Most of these printed copies will be from the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS) and American internet music retailers which can mean quite heavy charges for postage and can even lead to import taxes. Make sure you check these out and in case of doubt contact Mike Lofthouse for advice.

Increasingly they are available as a download (which bypasses the need for postage and possible import duty). The download will show the numbers of copies paid for on the music at the bottom of the first page. It will also have the purchase number so that details can be checked in the future.

If buying from an internet retailer I recommend that you check their system for special deals and arrangements that enable you to get fees and discounts especially if you are a Chorus Director or a vocal coach (teacher).

In general, once copyright has been paid you can use the music ‘forever’. However some owners may restrict the rights may to anything from 1 year to 5 years.

Printed sheet music can be sold (second hand) so if you have copies of music from the past that fall under this heading you can recover some of your costs by selling the copies to other groups. Again, contact Mike who will help as needed.

Unpublished arrangements

Most unpublished songs do not have full international worldwide copyright and most of the music from BHS cannot be purchased for use in the UK. Checking is easy – go to BHS shop, type in the name of the song and click on the ‘Additional info’ tab and at the bottom it will give the details for example


COUNTRYCODES would have to include ‘UK’ or ‘Worldwide’ for it to be used legally in the UK.

If you want a review copy (also called a reference copy) to determine whether you can sing the song then contact Mike at Music Advice Service and he will obtain a single copy of the arrangement for you. It is absolutely essential that any copies made for review and pdf files that are created, are destroyed if the song is not used by the group.

Once you have decided on a piece of music and want to make copies for your group then you must identify the owner in the UK. This may be a UK company such as Faber or someone in another country who owns the rights in the UK. Finding your way through the various online searching systems can be very time consuming and subject to error so contact the MAS to help you get over this hurdle.

For new arrangements see Sources of published and unpublished and New arrangements

The Overall Process

When using sheet music (either published, unpublished or newly-commissioned arrangements), it is your duty to check if you have the necessary permissions from the copyright owner before you sing it in public.

How to acquire rights

Once the owners are identified then they need to be paid for the rights to make your copies.

The main companies dealing with rights in the UK are

Hal Leonard Europe

Faber Music Ltd

Alfred Music Ltd

These three account for around 95% of the market.

We have excellent relationships with the companies mentioned here (and also with many of the 5% not listed).

Hal Leonard Europe (HLE) In 2018 HLE asked BABS Music Advice Service to act on their behalf and be the entry point for purchasing rights for all Barbershop groups in the UK.

This gives us a strong position in the market place, and the ability to bundle multiple orders leads to better prices than can be achieved by groups going direct.

Faber will accept requests through their online system for all customers. They do however have a minimum order cost which might put smaller groups at a disadvantage. As with HLE if you buy rights through Music Advice Service the placing of orders for several songs mitigates this extra cost.

Alfred are similar but do not have an online system. Again dealing with them through MSA is beneficial.

Please note - Quartets and Octets can often get free rights from Faber and Alfred so a direct approach is worthwhile. It is best to check with Mike if the rights are with them and he also has a guide on how to request rights from Faber online. Please note that HLE will not grant free rights under any circumstances.

As mentioned before, finding out who owns the music yourself can often be very time consuming and frustrating.

Feel free to email (preferred) or phone (if the request is complex) Mike Lofthouse who has access to the MCPS/PRS song database and works regularly with contacts at Hal Leonard /Faber and Alfred in order to solve complex rights issues.

To get the information you need to send us the title and importantly, the names of the writers and arranger(s) as there can often be several songs with the same names. If you have a copy send that along as there may be clues in the music itself. However be aware that copyright statements on music are almost certainly out of date .Ownership of songs can be very fluid.