Information on copyright regarding Computer Music files

© Copyright primer
on Computer music files

you may substitute the word Computer music files with
MIDI, MOD, WAV, RA, RMI, MP3,***, ???, XYZ, music files
since everything said applies to all music file formats
and all sound recording methods


About Computer music files and copyright

There is no question that copyright applies to all music files - of course it does!

Computer music files are another form of recording music -sometimes even referred to as "digital sheet music" in case of MIDI and other sequencer files."Digital Sound" files are sound recordings like CDs.   Therefore they constitute a new creation or a use of music like printing sheet music, performing music, or recording on tape. Both- creation and use - are protected and regulated by national and international copyright laws. For everyone involved in creating music and/or recordings professionally - this page could end here - nothing more to say . However, many people have not recognized that copyright applies to all uses of music- including computer music recording- and also using such recordings in publications..

Most users of music files; the non-professional creators of such files more so, are somehow subconsciously aware of this fact, but since royalty collection on computer music or the Internet has not yet been organized, many computer music enthusiasts and computer musicians have payed little attention to the copyright issue. because they simply got away with it for now.

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What is copyright ?

The right to make copies from an original piece of a new creation.  The copyright is the exclusive right to make copies of the original - hence the name. The word duplication clearly states by its name that making one single reproduction is already copying(duplicating) and that means you need permission from the owner of the copyright.. The copyright revenues - called royalties - are shared between all participants in the venture: normally the composer, lyricist (the person who wrote the words ), and the publisher.What about the recording artist(s) who performed the song, the record company (label), and the distribution company? They should collect on another right, but that does not stop them from trying to "cut in" on as much as they can grab from the author's copyright revenues.


Most people think there is only one copyright, but there is one important thing to be understood: A recorded piece of music is actually a subject of two (2) separate, but layered copyrights.Sometimes referred to as copyright © and copyright (P)
(As you see there is no ASCII preset for (P) on the keyboard yet , it should be a circle with a P in it.)

The creation copyright of the author is most commonly understood and respected. The composer owns this right to his music.In most cases this copyright is assigned to a publisher to "sell" the song. That is what copyright contracts are about.

The other is the recording performance production copyright, which is the right of the performing recording artist(s) to their specific interpretation (production/performance) of the song/music which is recorded . However, the recording artist(s) can only use the muisc written by the composer under a copyright license ! The performing artists create the additional copyright of their performance in the recording production - on top of the composer/lyricist creation copyright. That is why those "recording rights" are called in legal terminology "Neighbouring Rights".


Most people get those two rights mixed up and often take the "stars" performance on the record ( the production right) for the copyright. Most stars did not write the songs they perform, that is what songwriters are doing! You may get a better idea by checking for yourself, how many different artists have recorded the same song. And not all productions sold the same number of records, one sold more, the other less, but the creating authors got royalties from all productions, however, this are only a few pennies per record ! The big profits go to the record selling industry.  

Recently "declining" record sales have alerted record companies/(P)Production right owners and publishers /©copyright owners alike to other previously neglected ways to collect on copyright. Since all music files are also music recordings governed by the same copyright laws like any other sound recordings on tapes and CDs (computer disks), the copyright owners are legally entiteled to royalties and they want them now - no more free rides!  ( As said above, record companies are today publishers too !)

 For more information on copyright and related issues see The Copyright Info and Guidelines for the use of music under copyright

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How does copyright affect a normal person
not professionally involved in music

The same way as it does the professional -there is no exception (e.g. see your license agreements, that came with your software). If anyone is using music under copyright for any other than strictly personal use - royalties are due !
This includes especially recording in any form, broadcasting, printing, playing /performing to audiences, or including for use with other media. Creating any duplictions or providing for it (copies) constitutes distribution, even when not for profit - as soon as there is more than 1 or 2 copies for personal use (or backup).you are in violation of the copyright.    (copyright lingo sounds like, because it is , software license lingo - and vice versa)

When you use recorded music you have to pay royalties to the composer/publisher collected by copyright royalty agencies and you have to pay the artist/record label for the performance production right. With buying the record you aquire both these licenses for your personal use only - on older records this license was always printed on the record label. The fine print states clearly that it is licensed only for personal use - not for broadcasting or re-publishing or public performance or any commercial venture. This applies the same to tapes and CDs - the fine print is in the booklet or on the box panel card.  Using this music as a D.J, on the radio or for a movie, TV show , dance etc. generates "commercial use" copyright fees.  Including music in webpages or other files or making them available to others ( per FTP or downloading) constitutes (re-)publishing /broadcasting of this music to the public! This is why one must distinguish between personal (strictly private non public use) and all other applications. See also our writing  Homepage - part of my home? for more information on that tricky issue.


By definition, any other than private - non public- personal use of music recordings triggers royalty obligations, which have not yet been addressed in some instances, because it was deemed not worth to be collected, or it was considered of "insignificant" volume, or the enforcement not worth the effort. This view has changed dramatically and even governments responded by updating legislation.. The Internet "audience" is growing rapidly, outgrowing anything else !  So it is only a question of time until the royalty issue will be organized nationally and internationally . With enforcement of copyright comes the possibilty of nasty surprises. The first warnings from big music companies have already been issued to private "Computer music file archives" on the Internet and fines can be hefty.(see ads on copyright - this applies not only to software !!)  So you'd better make sure you have only registered /licensed, therefore legal, music files!

As a computer user you should be familiar with license agreements. The purchase price for programs includes the license (copyright) royalties , or the registration fee for share-ware and all the other *-ware venues are practically a copyright fee. This underlines, that it most always involves some kind of a contribution to obtain the license - it is not really "free".

Why are there so many "unauthorized" music-files around ?

At first nobody would "publish" or broadcast computer music-files, because the use was very limited to sequencer users and studios. The sound equipment needed to play those files was not common - until now, when computer music use and with it sound cards that use computer music files virtually exploded via Internet and multi-media-computing. .Every new sequencer and recording program owner seems now to think of the Internet as a possible audience. But they all need to know, that even an electronically transmitted performance triggers performance royalties and the recording mechanical duplication fees!  There are also renditions of music that defiy the term "music".  Merely punching sheet music into a sequencer is only making "digital sheet music", it does not make it a "dynamic performance, you have to apply "conductor skills" to it before is becomes music. Or recording a personal version of a song. But even those "amateur" music recordings are a violation of copyright. Remember duplicating sheet music was the first application of copyright in history !

Many sequencer owners have recorded and collected music files without thinking of copyright. Since everyone with a sequencer or sound recording program can produce music files, the established control at duplication sources failed, much more - it became uncontrollable. When music files were in the beginning limited to personal use, this changed gradually with multi media applications coming of age. Affordable sequencer and recording software has brought even more musicians to music recording. Many of them recorded music under copyright. Computer music files have also been sold on floppy disks by artists who have taken to this medium as an art form of their own, using computer recording like any other means of music recording. Many people collected and traded such recordings like stamps not realizing, that they were and still are in violation of the copyright, when those files contain copyright protected music. Since especially MIDI and sequencer recording was for instrumental renditions only, they could not see why they violate the copyright with an "own" rendition without the "star" artist. They obviously can not see the difference between the (P)Production right and the ©copyright either.

They all should be ordered to read the paragraphs above twice.

For more info on this read Guidelines for the use of music under copyright

Are there any copyright free music-files ?

Not really - only, if the recording artists make no claim to the production/perfomance and the music used is in public domain . Public domain means the copyright has expired . This is the case for traditionals or music where the creator is dead for more than 50 (fifty) years, in most countries now even 75 (seventyfive) years. That is the now valid period of protection, unless it was published under pseudonym, then the work is protected for this period from the year of first publication. Most of the popular songs are not half this old, so you are in "hot water" using Computer music-files containing this music.

When a claim is made that the music is copyright free, it mostly means that the music used is public domain, and the production performance license is paid for with the purchase of the recording or the bundle it came with . e.g. as a demo for a software with a soundcard or similar things . As a part of that bundle the use is restricted like the program it came with ! Sometimes a music file is used as a special promotional tool - however, this music file is part of the software copyright (see above). Even if you want to give away your music recordings for free - make sure it is all your own copyright - or you have to buy it first - and that price tag could be prohibitive for normal people!


There are some computer recordings (mainly MIDI) of classical "copyright free" music in some archives, available free to everyone who wants them. The recordings were made by music "lovers" (often unpaid music student to give them a feeling what the future job is all about) and are free to obtain to spread the use of "good" classical music. The production right has been waved so this are somehow "free" music files. However even "free" software comes with a "license", which is always limiting the use to personal, sometimes to educational and cultural "applications" (?), excluding any commercial or unspecified "other" applications.

That is for an obvious reason, the same people do not want the work they do for a living to be totally eliminated either, by someone delivering it for "free". And even most other music files you can now buy via the internet are not licensed to be re-broadcasted ( e.g. to be used on a web site).You may even be allowed to copy them on a personal CD or on your harddrive or a floppy disk ( most are much too big for that) but you cannot share them !


But are there not some artists who give their creations away for free ? Perhaps, when they are desperate and have given up any hope of getting their "stuff" out otherwise . Anyway, in all cases they give it away as DEMO. They never give up the copyright to it, so you may have such files for your personal use, but you can not "re-use" them. Do not overlook , even when music demos come with software, that the software's license restriction apply to this music file too. Do not fall in that trap! Those who offer a demo file appreciate your free advertisement for them, however, who gives you something free always expects that you give something back, or pay for something else to make up for it - hence it is a DEMO for something - and you are at least required to display a logo, advertisement or a straight copyright notice that recognizes ownership or to give proper credit! ( e.g © 1997 Beaver Mills Music).  Most all DEMOS have an advertising copyright notice attached , that is what they were made for !!

Only a virtual artist lives from honour and fame alone, real humans need cash to pay their bills, so be careful, if it is called "free" (or available per anonymous download ) - if it does not come from the copyright owner ( as DEMO) or / and with a stated license, it could be "stolen goods" - and a bill (copyright fine) could follow the trail to the "reckless" creator and the "unaware" user!

What about all those Computer music files "available" on the internet

Take a careful look ! For example: if you get a music-file containing "Yesterday" (Beatles) the recording "artist" most likely has not payed for and obtained a license to record this song, and by downloading and using it you are practically using "stolen" goods with all legal consequences. This applies also to music files where the creator - the recording musician - does not make any money.
  If recorded without license there is no distribution - not even for free,
and you must normally provide a controlled count of your distribution. No one can give away the property of somebody else - here the composer's property. This applies even more to bad renditions of someones' music. If you pay your license fee first - you may give your recordings away, but who can afford that. To make it more clear try this example:  What if someone would simply take your (valuable) car and after doing a little paint job and putting other tires on it, this person would sell it, or even give it away for free...or worse, crash it and than give away the wreck in whole or in pieces - you would be quite upset - so are the copyright owners.

Any popular song of the last fifty years is most likely still under copyright unless it is a known traditional or classical piece of music! If you are in doubt, look for an old record of it (or better sheet music!)- check the year of copyright and add at least 50 years (better 75 years ).  You may have to wait still before it is public domain ! What music is public domain is not always that easy to decide, not even for seasoned musicians. A certain new version of an old tune ( maybe it is even labeled based on........) is copyright protected too, you can only use the original traditonal tune. However, this applies mostly more to the lyrics than to the melodies of such songs.

What about my own music files

For sure, you can have GIGA Bytes of music files for your own personal use if they are created by yourself . But never distribute them -not even to friends- or put them into a public access file archive - if they contain music under copyright. You may use them, of course, for your own public performances as a musician - still then royalties are due to be payed to the copyright agencies. In many cases the premisses , establishments or the event organizers have a license contract with those agencies - so you are not involved in the process- nevertheless the royalties are collected ! 

 From this point on you should also get the idea why even a recording of your live performance cannot be given away either! Even promotional demo tapes by musicians/bands with more than 7 bars (measures) of a copyrighted music/song are practically illegal!  The fees are only pennies per tape, that is why collection of these royalties is not yet enforced, but this may change too.

Without paying the fees you are legally stealing.Today, picking a candy in a store lands you in court for theft. It is practically the same with many music files and recordings. Now think of several million "candies" picked daily without paying for them from the Internet and other sources and you can calculate what creators of music are loosing in rightful revenues. (see the copyright alert for sample calculations)  This is exactly what music companies and copyright agencies did; and they have a legal obligation through the contracts with the composers and artists to collect all this possible revenues world wide.

Is there a way to know that Computer music files are legal recordings like CDs or tapes ?

Not unless you buy them like the other music recordings from a traceable source, so that proper royalties can be levied. Everything else is a grey zone and copyright controlling companies are working on closing this "hole" with a vengance. What was said above applies of course to all recorded music - therefore also to all music files and all other audio files!  Unless you can afford copyright lawsuits (read the appropriate ads in your magazines!) you better make sure, that you are not making yourself a target!

That is why   midi-LOOPs  created  copyright licensed MIDI music files, to offer music files like software to registered users in the same way other computer programs are licensed. The license allows you to use these files like your personal computer applications and. explicitly permits the use on your personal website, so you can include midi-LOOPs files under this license in all your personal Webpages. You should not distribute or "broadcast" any music without proper licensing. You also must display a notice, that this licensed music is used and that this music is under copyright (not to be copied ). This is for your own protection ! You let those music pirates know, that they are breaking the law.

What about Computer music files and share ware -
can they be tested ? 

Music recordings have no trial period or beta releases ! If you want it - you buy , if you do not like it -- voila, and no one should argue about taste!   In most cases you may be able to listen to samples or cuts, you will not get from serious suppliers a full featured file for free download, (except a specific DEMO)  this is not practicable and a violation of copyright licensing too.  Licensing requires controlled download and pay for use, you will encounter variations in delivery. However you will have to pay for those recordings like for any other music you buy.

Music is NOT FREE - its a product with a price - as little it may be, respect it.


For additional information see

For some information on Computer music file formats read

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