Suggestions to Composers Who Wish to Set Words to Music

Composers who wish to set text (prose or poetry) to music must first discover whether the text is in the public domain and free of encumbrances, or protected by copyright. If the text is protected, its unauthorized use may lead to a lawsuit for copyright infringement. (If the composer wishes to set text by an unpublished author, he/she may find the writer agreeable — even flattered — by having his/her words set to music; if so, there should be a written agreement signed by the two collaborators that includes all those relevant matters discussed below.)

Generally speaking, US publications prior to 1923 are in the public domain. In this country, books published with a copyright notice from 1923 through 1977 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication. Those published in 1978 or thereafter are now protected for 70 years after the death of the creator, as are those in the European Community. In Canada and other countries the period is life plus 50 years.

Although most composers assign the copyrights of their works to their publishers, literary writers almost always retain their copyrights, but assign to their publishers the task of granting permissions for various uses. For this reason, unless a composer is setting words obviously in the public domain, he/she should search for the publication of the text in question (usually on the back of the title page) to determine if the words are copyrighted. An anthologized poem is unlikely to be first copyrighted in an anthology; the original publisher and copyright date are to be found in the Acknowledgments of the volume and it is to that publisher that an inquiry should be addressed. Similarly, if the material is attributed to another source, or "Reprinted by arrangement with..." contact the cited party. Bear in mind that translation into English is subject to the same regulations outlined above, even though the original poet may have died centuries ago. It is possible that the poem in the original language, as well as the translation, may be in copyright. If so, the translation's publisher will have the needed information.

Most music publishers request or require a composer to clear text-rights before they will contract for publication. Therefore, for the benefit of the composer (especially if self-published), the publisher already interested in the work, or any publisher that may later become interested, the composer should write to the Permissions Editor of the publisher of the text. If the musical setting has been commissioned with a performance deadline, the Permissions Editor should be informed at the outset, for the granting of rights is not often quickly accomplished, often requiring eight weeks.

The composer's letter should clearly identify the text to be set to music: the title, author, and ISBN number of the book in which the material appears, as well as the page number(s); if the whole text is not to be set, identify the relevant lines. Describe the kind of work you intend to write: its approximate length, the medium to be used, and its intended use (concert or recital performance, church, classroom or whatever).

The composer should request:

  1. The non-exclusive right to set the text to music, the rights in the use of the text to continue for the copyright life of the text. (Exclusive rights may not be available, may not be granted, and may be costly.)
  2. The right to copyright the collaborative work and to assign the copyright to a music publisher or other entity.
  3. World rights for public performances of the work;
    • for its publication in print or other media (including the re-printing of the text, gratis, in program booklets),
    • for its audio and audio-visual recording and transmission in media now known or that may come into existence.
  4. The preferred credit/copyright line for the use of the text, to be added at the bottom of the first page of the manuscript and in the published work. The composer should assure the publisher that all royalty or other income from the above listed, or any other sources, will be shared equally between the composer and the writer. (The 50/50 sharing is common today. However, other arrangements are sometimes negotiated, especially if the set text is but a small part of the over-all musical work.)

If the publisher requests information such as the number of copies to be printed first and subsequently, the cost per copy and the percentage of the cost to be paid as royalty — and information concerning recordings and Internet postings — the self-published composer should try to answer the questions. The as-yet unpublished composer should give the name and address of his/her interested publisher (or offer to do so if and when a publisher becomes available) and state that such matters are certain to be discussed later by the two publishers together.

A few authors have instructed their publishers to grant no permissions for musical settings of their work, or have designated poems that may not be set. Occasionally an author (or, more often an heir) insists that the composer make no changes whatever in the published poem. A charge may be made by the publisher against future royalties or in addition to them. If difficulties arise in tracing the copyright of a text, the US Copyright Office (202/707-3000) will undertake a search, for which there is a charge; in extreme cases, particularly if foreign copyrights are in question, the composer may need to engage an attorney experienced in copyright and intellectual property matters.

Some of the suggestions outlined above apply to the acquisition of rights to plays, novels, or short stories that are to be used in writing musicals, operas, music theater or ballets. However, there are many other varied and complicated matters that should be discussed with the composer's publisher, attorney, and other knowledgeable persons, and settled, before the composers becomes musically committed and emotionally involved in subject matter protected by copyright.

It should be noted that U.S. performing rights licensing organizations, such as ASCAP, do not license performances that are defined as grand rights.

— Jack Beeson
August, 1999