Copyright and Your Marching Band


When planning a marching band show, one of the first decisions to make is whether to go with a stock arrangement, write a custom show, or hire someone to do so for you. One factor in making this decision is copyright.

Without following proper protocol you and your arranger can unintentionally infringe on composers’ copyrights. When this happens, publishing companies and composers don’t get paid for their work, and you can open the door for legal troubles for you, your school or group, and your collaborators. To help avoid this, I’d like to share some of my experience as an arranger.

Public Domain

When I am contemplating arranging published music, I draw a mental line in the sand at 1923. Music published before 1923 is often in the public domain, meaning that it’s available to the public and not subject to copyright.

Public domain is my best friend. As it includes most music from the beginning of time through the romantic era, it gives us a lot to work with. However, some pre-1923 pieces are still under copyright, so always do thorough research and never assume a piece is in the public domain. A good resource for public domain music is the International Music Score Library Project.

Music Under Copyright

The other side of my line in the sand is music still under copyright. This part of the published music world is a bit more sticky. If you’re looking to arrange music that is still under copyright, it is possible. To do so you’re required to obtain permission of the copyright owner, and they have the right to decline this permission.

I have arranged a lot of music still under copyright. Many composers and publishing companies are willing to have their music on the marching band stage. However, it’s vital that you go through the proper channels to legally obtain the permission before arranging the work. This is one place where I recommend getting a head start on since this process can take quite a bit of time.

How Do I Get Permission?

The path to getting permission to arrange and perform a piece of copyrighted music can have a lot of twist and turns. If you have the time, you can do the research and find the copyright owner yourself. If you don’t have time to do research, perhaps your arranger can offer some assistance. This is one of the many services I provide my clients.

Sometimes connecting with the copyright holder is as simple as going to a composer’s or a publisher’s website and finding their phone number. Other times you may not find any information online. Organizations like Tresona are great for those tough situations and will take care of this process for a fee.

How Are Licenses Negotiated?

When you reach out to the copyright owner for rights, you typically pay a fee for the arrangement. Sometimes, you can negotiate this fee. One factor is the amount of the work being used in your arrangement. Another is the length of time the arrangement can be performed. The time frame is limited to continue to protect the composer and publishing company. While you may be able to haggle with the cost and timeline, in reality this is in the owner’s ballpark since you are asking for permission. Once you reach an agreement be sure to get it in writing.

After you have purchased the rights to arrange and perform a piece, and the music has been arranged, you may ask yourself,  “Do I own the arrangement?” Since the arrangement created is a by-product of the original piece, whoever owns the copyright owns the arrangement.

Final Thoughts

No one wants to deny a fellow musician their rightful share. No one wants to make their organization vulnerable to legal action. I’ve heard of schools, directors, and arrangers being fined thousands of dollars, and of people subsequently losing their jobs. The secret to avoiding problems is to plan ahead, start early, and never assume anything, whether it be that the copyright holder will say “yes,” that the ancient piece is in the public domain, or that your students will remember to bring their folders without you reminding them to do so.

Good luck to you as you begin planning for next season.

Additional Resources

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