The IT Law Wiki


A musical work consists of the musical notes and lyrics (if any) in a musical composition.[1] A musical work may be fixed in any form, such as a piece of sheet music or a compact disc.[2] Musical works may be "dramatic," i.e., written as a part of a musical or other dramatic work, or "nondramatic," i.e., an individual, free-standing composition.


A holder of a musical work copyright is typically a composer, who authors the work, or a music publisher, who purchases copyrights from composers and exercises the rights of those composers. Holders of copyright in musical works have the right to do or to authorize the:

  1. reproduction of the copyrighted musical work;
  2. preparation of derivative works based on the copyrighted musical work;
  3. distribution of the musical work to the public by sale, rental, lease or lending;
  4. performance of the musical work publicly; and
  5. display of the musical work publicly.[3]

Reproduction right[]

The right of reproduction is the right to duplicate, transcribe, imitate, or simulate a work in a fixed form. In the context of music copyrights, the right of reproduction authorizes the copying of musical works (e.g., duplicating sheet music) or sound recordings. Infringement of these rights would be the unlawful copying of the copyrighted work.

Distribution right[]

The right of distribution establishes the right to distribute copies or phonorecords of a copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.[4] In the context of music copyrights, the right of distribution permits the sale of copies (sheet music) or phonorecords (sound recordings) to the public. Infringement of this right would be any unauthorized public distribution of a copy or phonorecord.

Public performance right[]

The right of public performance means the exhibition, rendition, or playing of a copyrighted work, either directly or by means of any device or process.[5] Public performance not only covers the initial rendition, but also any further act by which the rendition is transmitted or communicated to the public. In the context of music copyrights, the public performance right allows promotion and performance of the music. Infringement of this right would be the public performance of a copyrighted work without the consent of the copyright holder.

For those who wish to exercise the public performance rights in a musical work, a license is required. These licenses can be obtained directly from the copyright holder, but for most musical works, a license can be obtained from the major performing rights societiesASCAP, BMI or SESAC.


  1. Congress did not define the term "musical work" in the 1976 Copyright Act based on the assumption that the term had a "fairly settled" meaning. See H.R. Rep. No. 1476, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. 55 (1976), at 53, reprinted in 1976 U.S.C.C.A.N. 5666-67.
  2. A phonorecord generally embodies two works — a musical work (or, in the case of spoken word recordings, a literary work), and a sound recording. Musical works available on the Internet may also be the subject of Musical Instrument Digital Interface ("MIDI") recordings. A MIDI is a data stream between a musical unit in a computer and a music-producing instrument. The data stream instructs the instrument, such as a synthesizer, on what notes to play.
  3. 17 U.S.C. §106(1)-(5). These five rights comprise the copyright holder’s so-called “bundle of rights,” which are cumulative and may overlap in some cases.
  4. Id. §106(3).
  5. Id. §§ 106(4), 101.