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.

Once anyone creates a piece of work, the creator automatically has copyright over it – and they can copy it as many times as they want (but nobody else can). The copyright will last for 70 years after the creators’ death. A lot of the time, the creator will sign their rights over to publishing companies for them to administer.

When a work is in copyright, you cannot:

> copy the lyrics in any way
> copy the sheet music in any way
> arrange the song for your group (or have it arranged)
> sell, give away or swap an arrangement of the song

However, you can do all of the above if you ask permission!

When using sheet music (either published, unpublished or newly-commissioned arrangements), it is your duty to check if you have permission from the copyright owner, and if you do not, you must get permission from the copyright owner before you use the sheet music.

The below, prepared by Rod Adams for BABS, should prove useful when you are seeking permission from copyright owners to use sheet music.

N.B. The above guidance is about obtaining the rights to copy sheet music – not to perform it! If you want to perform the song in public, PRS for Music will need to collect money on behalf of the song creator. You don't need permission to perform the songs – you just need to pay for the right to. In the majority of cases, music venues will have a PRS Licence, so you will just need to give the venue a list of songs you performed with details of the composer/arranger, and they will invoice you accordingly based upon the size of the audience, and pass the money onto PRS on your behalf. Please note it is the responsibility of the Event Organiser to ensure PRS fees are paid.

The Overall Process

This latest and major revision of the guide is  produced with the intention of assisting club music librarians with the task of obtaining the relevant clearances on new arrangements of a song and permissions to use and copy music for club use. It is not definitive, if it doesn't work for you, try adjusting your phone or email manner!

Published arrangements
If the piece is an original barbershop song arrangement it may be registered with BHS or BABS and marked as such. If it is a “published” arrangement with a BHS catalogue number of generally 4 digits but sometimes 6 (and a “published” date in the catalogue) you merely need to place an order with the BABS Harmony store (Mike Lofthouse) and send the relevant payment as requested by Mike in his invoice for the number of copies you require. He will obtain the music from the US and forward it on to you. If you order direct from the BHS via their website you will pay more per copy and full postage which can be very expensive. Going through the BABS Harmony store will definitely save you money. The BHS catalogues in PDF and Excel format of published and unpublished arrangements are on the BHS website at this link If it is a BABS published  arrangement again go through the BABS Harmony store.

Unpublished arrangements
If the song is in the BHS "unpublished" lists, indicated in the catalogue with an 8 figure number and no “published” date then the procedure is now different. Most unpublished songs do not have full international worldwide copyright so anything done for unpublished music in the States will not be valid in the UK. The song should have had the arrangement cleared in the States but you still have to arrange to pay a “per copy” fee to the UK copyright administrators. Once you have chosen a song from the unpublished catalogues contact the Music Advice Service. He will obtain a single copy of the arrangement for you. You will then have to find the UK owner and pay copy fees to them, Some companies have eforms that you can use for copy licences (webmaster please sort an area with links to the 4 x Faber, Alfred and Music Sales word forms as provided, plus the 2 examples) Others you will have to contact and sort it out with them. If there is an arrangers fee then once you have permission to make multiple copies you will need to pay this fee. This can be done through the Music Advice Service.

Finding out who owns the music can be several ways. Email or phone Rod Adams or Mike Lofthouse who have access to the MCPS/PRS worldwide song  database. Give us the song title and importantly, the names of the writers ( there can often be several songs with the same names), and they should be able to find the current UK owners of a song. Your music may have copyright statements on it but they will almost certainly be out of date. Ownership of songs is a very fluid beast!  If Rod or Mike are not available contact the PRS member services by email [email protected] or phone (0207 306 4972) and ask them who are the current “final shares” owners of the song. Hopefully they can also give you the companies contact details.

New arrangements
This will involve you finding out the copyright owners as described in the para b(ii), sending them a copy for proof reading, agreeing any changes required by the copyright owner and then agreeing any contract of ownership and fees. They tend not to like it when arrangers change the words or the sense of the lyrics. Several of the main players (Faber, Alfred, Music Sales) have electronic forms which can be used for all parts of the above process from just asking for licence to copy to full arrangement clearances. They are available on this site. You can expect to pay around £30 to clear a song and up to £1 per copy on top of that.

If the piece appears to be a home-grown UK barbershop arrangement of an ordinary song, find out who the copyright owners are and then check if the arrangement is registered with them, if it is, find out what fee if any would be payable to make copies of the music and their “per copy” licencing procedure.

If it is not a registered arrangement then you must try to find the arranger and agree that you will now register and clear the arrangement with the copyright owners. If you can't find the arranger but you know this will not be a problem send it to the copyright owners for approval anyway marked arranger unknown.

General Items
When arranging clearances of a new arrangement or paying copy fees always emphasise strongly to the copyright owner that your society, BABS, is a registered charity, your club may be as well. If you are only using it for the benefit of charities, say so. I always point out that most of us Barbershoppers actually pay a significant monthly subscription to keep our clubs afloat and that if any money is made from sing-outs it is ploughed straight back in for the benefit of barbershop and/or charities.

Often however if you are clearing a new arrangement , and have the arrangers permission to give it away! they will offer you a form of contract whereby you use the song exclusively for your clubs use for performance only at a very small or no charge in exchange for you signing the rights to the arrangement over to them, this is known as a "short term contract assignment". This means that you cannot lend or sell the music to anyone else. If a third party wishes to use the music they must apply for "permission to copy" in their own right.

Sometimes things will drop into place easily but I often find that arranging clearances on a medley can be traumatic as you could have several different copyright owners to deal with. Even single songs can sometimes be difficult as they can also have two or more shared owners. Be patient on the phone with the companies - a pleasant phone manner could save you ££'s.

You may be thinking "why should I go to all this palaver just to get permission to use a piece of music"? The answer is if you don't, you could end up not using a piece because you can't afford the fees... waiting 6 months for a reply because you wrote to the wrong person, or ending up in court because you used it illegally! Grovelling is worth it! This warning is particularly to competitions, Competitions outside of Barbershop often insist on copies of all paperwork proving that you have the right to use the songs you intend to perform. And you should note that note that plans are being put in place for all songs sung at BABS prelims and Convention to be checked for legal copyright).

When the relevant permissions have been agreed you must usually put a copyright statement on your arrangement of the music before you print your copies. The copyright owner in their letter of confirmation will normally provide the correct form of words that they require.

Finally if you think their service has been good, let them know. A quick thank you email or phone call could save you ££ and weeks next time.

Contact Addresses and Phone Numbers

The main source for you to find copyright ownership is to ask Mike Lofthouse to access the PRS/MCPS database and get you the contact details. If we are not around and you are feeling adventurous or in a hurry email them at [email protected]  giving them the song title and writers names. They can then find out the ownership info for you and probably give you contact details as well. You can also phone member services on 0207 306 4972.

The main players who control the great percentage of music in this country are

Faber Music (Matt Smith)  
[email protected] 
0207 908 5329

Music Sales (Catherine Walker) 
[email protected] 

Alfred Music (Amy Clarke)
[email protected] 
01279 828952 

Copyright Help and Document Centre

Copyright Process Diagram

Choirs and Copyright Beginners Guide

Making Music Guide to Copyright 

Music Sales Print Request Form

Example Music Sales Print Request Form

Faber Print Licence Request Form

Example Faber Print Licence Request Form

Alfred Print License Request Detail Form New Arrangements

Alfred Photocopy Permission Request Details Form