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Asked and Answered: What rights do I need for a classical music film score?

Paul is planning to use public domain music, reinterpreted for his film score and wants to know what rights and agreements he will need.






Paul wants to know: Does a film producer need copyright permission for a classical film music score, if the score is being reinterpreted by the producer's own composers and musicians. He also asks whether copyright law applies to any of this, the original classical piece, the new score, or what.


Well, let's take the last part first. Copyright law protects any original work of authorship for a period of time. Nowadays, works are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. Under older copyright law, the time-frame(s) were much shorter. Right now, most works created prior to 1923 are in the public domain, and can be used without permission.

So, if you're using a Beethoven piece written in 1820, you don't need anybody's permission to use the COMPOSITION. But, if you're using an existing RECORDING of that piece, you most likely DO need permission from the record label.

If you're having a new recording made, and you've got a composer and musicians doing a new arrangement, or interpretation, or a mashup, then THAT is actually a new work, and you do need permission to use it.

What you really need is a “work made for hire” agreement with those folks… So you will own the copyright in the new work. If you don't have that in writing, THEY, not you will own it.

If you own the copyright, because you do have such a contract, then you're free to use it however you want, including making different interpretations. But, if you don't own it, then the opposite is true, and you'd need a license to do anything at all with the score… even exhibiting the film.

The same rule is true if you've got a composer creating an entirely new, original score. you need to have written contracts with the composer who does the score, and with the musicians who perform it.

Its easy, in the excitement of getting a new project off the ground, to leave this kind of thing to good faith… but copyright law can be tricky and this requirement that things be in writing is important… So take the time to get things done right. The good news is that this isn't a matter of reinventing the wheel, so an experienced entertainment lawyer can get you the contracts you need quickly and cost-effectively.

2 Responses to Asked and Answered: What rights do I need for a classical music film score?

  1. Great article as always, Gordon.

    I’m planning a film and I’m hoping to use music and lyrics written during the 1950’s-1980’s that was never copyrighted. Although the music was never copyrighted, the singer who wrote the songs was videotaped by different people as he sang his music.

    I have copies of the video tapes, but I’m not sure who taped the performances. I strongly doubt anyone who created the tapes bothered to copyright them and it seems they freely made copies for friends.

    I’m interested to learn if you ever had anyone in this boat…

    • Thanks Stanley,

      I want to clear up a misconception. Under modern copyright law, obtaining a copyright in a work does not require any affirmative act by the author, other than creating the original work. Copyright protection exists from the moment of creation. So, the works (at least those since January 1, 1978) ARE in fact protected, so proper licenses WILL be required.

      Works created under the previous copyright act MIGHT have fallen into the public domain, if they were published without copyright notice, and without registration, but it’d be unwise to rely on the assumption that the songs were never registered for copyright, unless you’ve conducted extensive research to confirm this.

      Works created between 1962 and 1978 are subject to a special set of rules, as well, so careful research is especially important.

      the fact that the works were videotaped may or may not be relevant. It’s unlikely to have much bearing on things, unless you’re using the actual recordings embodied in those videotapes.

      Bottom line, permission from the authors of the musical compositions (lyrics and music) is required unless you’re absolutely certain that the works have fallen into the public domain). The help of an experienced and knowledgable entertainment lawyer or music clearance expert is essential to doing this right. The consequences of screwing this up can be disastrous.

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