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Playing Classical Music Raises Copyright Questions for Business Owners

Posted in News on July 4, 2001

Let's play "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire." First question: Is classical music in the public domain? If so, you can play it in a restaurant, hotel or retail store without paying royalties to the composers. Answer: If you're thinking "yes" will be your final answer, you'd be wise to use a lifeline. Picking the correct answer requires a substantial knowledge of music.

"Many classical works are newer than they sound," said Tom Annastas, BMI Vice President, General Licensing. "The question is more difficult because people don't define classical music the same way," he said. "Is classical music played by symphony orchestras? Sometimes, but not always. Aren't classical composers dead? Mozart and Beethoven earned their wings some two centuries ago, but many classical composers live and work today."

Classical music can be performed by one person with a guitar, flute, synthesizer, piano, or harp. It can be played or sung by any combination of instruments or voices, either acoustic or electronic. Even if the composer is no longer above ground, his or her work can be protected by copyright law for 95 years or longer. Works created after January 1, 1978 can be protected for the life of the composer plus 70 years, before those works move into the public domain.

"Assuming all classical music is in the public domain is a common misconception," said Dr. Barbara Petersen, Asst. Vice President, Classical Music Administration for BMI. "There are many contemporary composers creating music for soloists, ensembles, movies, opera, and theater companies. Whether music sounds new or old does not determine its copyright status."

Mark O'Connor is an example of a contemporary BMI writer whose work breaks down barriers between classical and other genres of music. He runs a fiddle camp, appears in the credits of 400 country music albums, and just released a jazz album called "Hot Swing!" He also performs his own concertos with major symphony orchestras and tours with the Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra. O'Connor created period music for a six-part PBS documentary on the American Revolution, releasing it as an album titled "Liberty!" Natural successors to that work were his Sony Classical releases "Appalachia Waltz" and "Appalachian Journey." Both were performed by O'Connor with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer (also a BMI writer).

A not-for-profit performing rights organization, BMI represents 300,000 composers and copyright owners and approximately 4.5 million musical works. BMI represents the catalogs of 27 composers who have won the Pulitzer Prize in Music, five Grawemeyer Award winners and more than half the composer members of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters.

In addition to the works of some 3,000 American classical composers and 800 publishers, BMI's repertoire includes works of prominent composers and publishers from 60 licensing societies around the world. It includes Brazilian-flavored pieces of Villa-Lobos, the Bach arrangements of Wendy Carlos, and strikingly American works by Charles Ives, Roy Harris, William Schuman, Scott Joplin, and William Bolcom. BMI's lighter classical fare includes Latin pieces by Agustín Lara and Ernesto Lecuona, classical tunes with new words by Garrison Keillor for "A Prairie Home Companion," and the repertoire of the Modern Mandolin Quartet, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, and the Romeros.

BMI composer John Williams created soundtracks for the movies "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Star Wars," and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (among others). Opera fans will recognize "Nessun Dorma" from "Turandot" by Giacomo Puccini. The Italian composer died in 1924, but the opera is still protected by U.S. Copyright Law and is represented by BMI in the United States. This aria is a favorite of today's best-loved tenors, from Pavarotti to Bocelli.

"BMI also represents copyrighted arrangements of public domain musical works, including those of such popular classical composers as Handel, Mozart, Bach, Debussy and Vivaldi," said Petersen. "Many works performed by guitar ensembles, harp or flute are new arrangements, and these have protection under copyright law, too."