As soon as a songwriter records his song as sheet music, he receives full copyright protection for the tune under U.S. copyright law. Registering this song with the U.S. Copyright Office strengthens his claim, and he enjoys exclusive rights to duplicate, make derivative works and publically perform the song. When you purchase sheet music, you typically purchase a very limited license based on the physical copy you own, and the majority of the rights remain with the songwriter. Understanding the limits of these rights is essential for professional musicians.

Copying and Distribution

Copyright law for sheet music can be complicated, but the most straightforward portion of the law is duplication of the score itself. These rights remain with the copyright holder, and when you purchase sheet music, you aren’t granted the right to make copies of the piece for the rest of your orchestra, although you may create your own copies for archival purposes. Neither are you allowed to distribute the music, such as by posting a copy of the sheet music online for download. Copyright law’s first-sale doctrine allows you to resell the single copy of sheet music you purchased, so long as you don’t keep a copy for yourself, without violating copyright law.

Performance Rights

Unless you specifically purchase sheet music that comes with a public performance license -- which is considerably more expensive in many cases -- your use of the sheet music is limited to personal use. The copyright holder maintains exclusive control of public performance, and it’s typically not granted in most sheet music sales. Purchasing sheet music allows you to perform the song in your home and to friends and family, but if you plan to perform them in public, you must purchase a performance license from a rights-management company. If you perform the song in any venue that features recorded or live music, the establishment’s performance license typically covers your performance.

Recording Rights

You may record yourself playing music you learned from sheet music without running afoul of copyright violations. Owning the sheet music doesn’t provide you with the right to play that recording publicly or to sell your recordings, however. Those rights are protected by copyright law. Playing a recording publicly is dealt with in a similar manner as if you performed it live, as a performance license is required. If you plan to duplicate that recording, such as through record sales or uploads to a video-sharing service, copyright law gets more complicated.

Here’s where things get a little confusing: A recorded song actually juggles two separate copyrights. First, there’s the composition rights. They’re owned by whoever wrote the song and set it to sheet music. The copyright on the recording itself, however, belongs to the person who made the recording or performed on it. Because of this arrangement, you can record a song you learned from sheet music and still maintain full rights to your interpretation of the tune. You'll need to secure a different type of license -- known as a mechanical license -- to duplicate a recording of another's composition, that allows you to sell or freely distribute the recording.