Copyright: Arranging, Adapting, Transcribing

Want to simplify some music for your beginning chorus or transcribe a piano piece for flute? Arranging a copyrighted musical work requires the permission of the copyright owner.

There are Fair Use exceptions in U.S. copyright law that support educators:

  1. “Music teachers can edit or simplify purchased, printed copies, provided that the fundamental character of the work is not distorted or the lyrics, if any, are not altered or lyrics added if none exist.
  2. “Music teachers who get a compulsory license* for recording can make a musical arrangement of a work to the extent necessary for their ensemble. The arrangement cannot change the basic melody or fundamental character of the work.” (“United States Copyright Law: A Guide for Music Educators”)


Here’s what the law (37 U.S.C. §107) considers to determine Fair Use:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount used and how substantial the portion used is in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.


Derivative Works that Require Permission

  • Arrangements
  • Simplified editions
  • Orchestrations
  • Instrumental accompaniments
  • Adaptations
  • Transcriptions
  • Translations of lyrics


Requesting Permission

1) Determine the copyright owner (usually the publisher) using the Harry Fox Agency’s Songfile or ASCAP’s ACE Title Search.

2) Contact the copyright owner and ask for permission. NAfME member Jay Althouse recommends providing as much information as possible:

  • The kind of arrangement—band, chorus, orchestra, etc.
  • The number of copies or parts
  • Who is making the arrangement—you, a student, or someone for hire
  • Who will perform the arrangement—your chorus, the local symphony
  • Whether you will sell the arrangement and its price
  • How often the arrangement will be used—the 2008 Winter Concert or every year from now on


3) Get permission in writing.

4) Show a copyright notice on the arrangement—on all copies and all parts.

5) Keep in mind that permission may be denied or come with a fee.

6) Don’t risk infringement if permission is denied. Statutory damages range from $500 to $20,000 for each act of infringement, but can soar to $100,000 if the infringement was willful.


In his book, Copyright: The Complete Guide for Music Educators, Althouse describes noninfringing and infringing adaptations:

  • Noninfringing: You buy enough copies of a choral work for your SATB choir and change a few notes in the tenor line.
  • Infringing: You buy one copy of a 2-part work and adapt it for your SATB choir. You write men’s parts, notate them with Finale software, and distribute copies to your male singers.


Althouse’s rule of thumb: What if everyone did it? In the above example, if the publisher already has an SATB version in print, this adaptation could cause a loss of sales for the publisher’s edition.


Jay Althouse is a music educator who served as a rights and licenses administrator for a major educational music publisher, as well as serving a term on the executive board of the Music Publishers Association of America. He composes choral music and has written several books in addition to his book on copyright.

–Linda Brown, October 1, 2008 © National Association for Music Education (


* Compulsory License: If a musical work has been recorded for public distribution, the copyright owner is required to license it to anyone who wants to record it.


  • Misha

    Dear Sir / Madam,

    I have made a transcription/set of variations of The Imperial March from Star Wars. I have a student who is supposed to play it in a local music competition this coming weekend.

    I made this transcription without any intention of claiming that I wrote the original and I have made this clear on the score. It is edited in a way that makes it possible for small hands but in better taste than a lot of the transcriptions out there. It is a set of 3 variations with a coda at the end. There is no introductory theme (like you would find in a traditional set of variations) but only variations with a softer interlude half way through to break up the first two variations. I think that more than 40% of this piece has been edited or changed but I am not sure. It takes about 2 minutes to play.

    There is no intention to publish this work or claim copyright for the original. I have not sold it to the student or his parents or anyone else for that matter. I have no intention to sell it. It is only for my one student to play and develop his technique while enjoying what he is using for educational purposes. I have no intention to make money in any way through this piece or for anyone else to make money directly or indirectly from this piece.

    The local event has a programme but the only details which are published in the programme are the names of the competitors. There is no need for the student to announce the title and composer of the piece although if it is required then he will do so. The event organisers are not making money or advertising the event by using the title of this piece or the original composer’s name. It is also a non-profit event.

    There will be no recording made of this piece when played. The event organisers will be making sure of this. No audio or video recordings will be made and there will be supervisors in the room making sure of this also.

    The student who is playing this piece along with his parents have been primed not to allow anyone to have a copy of the sheets or give them to anyone else. They are very respectful of the laws of the land and are only interested in promoting their son’s musical interests and have agreed to the terms that I have laid down as well as any which we will potentially be given by anyone in authority. As soon as the student has finished playing the sheets will be taken back and destroyed.

    Is there anyway for us to get permission for him and only him to play this piece during this coming weekend? If anyone can help I would really appreciate it as hours of reading up on copyright law has not brought me close to finding out what is permissible and what isn’t as far as movie Music is concerned. I have even asked Radnich and Belousova how they got permission to transcribe, record, sell and show for free on YouTube their transcriptions and paraphrases of Star Wars but they have not replied and we are running out of time.

    Radnich’s Star Wars:

    Belousova’s Start Wars:

    My student has worked for just over a whole year (now 8 years old) to be able to play this piece. It would be a crying shame if it was not possible. How can we get official permission for him to play it just in case a representative of the PRS turns up to this event? Do we need official permission?


    • Misha, contact the copyright holder for permission (should be listed in the copyright notice on first page of printed music).