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I'm learning to play an instrument and I would like to transcribe the songs I heard for later practicing. I have some questions regarding transcribing music and the legality of using musical transcription:

  1. Is it legal for me to transcribe a copyrighted song?
  2. Do I need permission to sell or give away my musical transcriptions for free, in both when case the transcription may imitate the original sounds or is a recomposition of the songs.
  3. Can I perform the transcription in public, and the performance may involving profits for myself (i.e selling tickets, crowd donation, selling performance recordings...)
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  • Could you add a country tag, please? Copyright laws vary by country, sometimes signficantly. Oct 3, 2015 at 15:55

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You can do whatever you want for your own personal use. When you then go to publish your derivative products, you run into issues. Just use it for your own enjoyment, and leave it at that.

Performing in public, a song written by someone else, whether you copy their arrangement (i.e. play it note-for-note as they played it) or use your own arrangement, involves a performance royalty to the songwriter. This is typically owed/paid by the proprietor of the venue or the promoter. You, as a performer, may also be wearing one of those hats too. Your obligation would be to the performance rights society that the original artist lists their music: ASCAP, SESAC, BMI, etc.

If you sell recordings of your own version of someone else's song, you have wandered into something slightly different, a mechanical license. That is (in the USA) managed by the Harry Fox Agency, and there are statutory rates for what you need to pay, per copy manufactured.

Put very simply, none of this matters until that moment when money start changing hands. If you learned songs for 50 years, copying them down to paper for your own edification and enjoyment, but not disseminating those charts or selling recordings of your performances, you have no obligations. The moment you start making money... or somebody makes money, you wade into the copyright/licensing world.

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    Philipp, the OP's question is quite broad...the full answer would require chapters and chapters. Please understand that I don't have time to offer hours of writing to random internet question-askers who, by the very nature of their question, isn't anywhere near the point where the answer will actually have any monetary impact.
    – dwoz
    Oct 7, 2015 at 17:15
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    thank you for elaborating. I changed my downvote to an upvote. However, I am unsure about that "money changing hands" part. As far as I understood copyright, it doesn't matter if you violate a copyright for money or for free.
    – Philipp
    Oct 7, 2015 at 17:31
  • Philipp...I use the term "somebody" very specifically! It need not be the transcriber. For example, if I produce a sheet music transcription of a popular song I heard on the radio, and put that transcription up on a web page...then it's quite likely that the website is getting revenue from ad banners, which is "someone making money." It's also publishing a copy that potentially pushes the original artist's own transcription off to the side, causing them reduced revenue.
    – dwoz
    Oct 7, 2015 at 17:47
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    This mostly a good answer, but it is not correct that "none of this matters until that moment when money start changing hands. " Transcribing a musical work is still makign a copy, even if it is for personal study and is never sold, or even shared. It might be fair use in the US. It is unlikely to attract a suit even if technically it could. But if someone transcribes and gives away many copies of music now in print, a suit would probably follow. Nov 8, 2018 at 0:46
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    The public performance right can be triggered even if the performance is done free of charge.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 9, 2021 at 23:28
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Is it legal for me to transcribe a copyrighted song?

Transcribing a musical work is still making a copy, even if it is for personal study and is never sold, or even shared. It might be fair use in the US. It is unlikely to attract a suit even if technically it could. But if someone transcribes and gives away many copies of music now in print, a suit would probably follow. However, copyright infringement is not (in most cases) a crime. Unless the copyright owner chooses to file suit, nothing will be done.

Do I need permission to sell or give away my musical transcriptions for free, in both when case the transcription may imitate the original sounds or is a recomposition of the songs.

Yes, permission is needed for this. Making copies, and making derivative works based on a protected works, are both rights of the copyright owner, and neither may be done without permission, unless an exception to copyright applies (such as fair use or fair dealing). In some countries there is a specific exception for personal use, but there is not under US law. Copies for personal use will often come under fair use, but far from always. And distributing copies widely is much less likely to be fair use, even if there is no charge made.

Can I perform the transcription in public, and the performance may involving profits for myself (i.e selling tickets, crowd donation, selling performance recordings...)

Not without permission. A copyright owner also holds a right of public performance. If the copyright owner belongs to a performing rights society such as ASCAP (as many professional composers and song writers do) then the rights will be available on stated terms from such a society. If the performance is at a venue that often hosts musical performances, it is likely that the venue has secured a general performance license for all works covered by the various performing rights societies, and the performer need take no further action. But those rights will not usually cover distributing copies of a recording of the performance.

In some circumstances a compulsory "mechanical" license is available for cover versions of already published music is available. A fee must be paid for this, and specified procedure must be followed, but if the conditions apply the copyright owner has no right of refusal.

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You can transcribe music, but if you want to publish it, you should include artist and producer and make it clear that it is not your original work.

The issue of profiting from it has not really been exercised as to the issue of royalties and fair use, to my knowledge. As the notion of law is rooted in both liberty (your exercise) and justice (theirs), it would certainly be fair to offer something to the original artists or production companies should you get significant benefit.

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    The issue of royalties and fair use has been thoroughly addressed by law. See, for example, this answer as a starting point.
    – feetwet
    Oct 7, 2015 at 13:08
  • @feetwet: I believe the Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig would disagree with you, who's been fighting to change current behavior on First Principled grounds. Oct 7, 2015 at 14:26
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    If you believe a movement to change the current law would be responsive to this question then please update your answer accordingly. Otherwise: This question (like most on this site) is clearly about the law as it currently stands.
    – feetwet
    Oct 7, 2015 at 15:44
  • @MarkRosenblitt-Janssen, invoking Lessig in music copyright questions is kind of like shouting "seig heil" in a shabbat ceremony. He is a charlatan who sort of makes some small amount of sense when it comes to software libraries, which are all built upon previous libraries...but when it comes to artistic creative work, the concepts are very "square peg in round hole" ish.
    – dwoz
    Jan 16, 2016 at 2:27
  • Hardly, music is very much built from prior work. The instruments, the scales, chords, and 12-notes. These all come from historical advancements that users of these techniques never give credit for. Jan 19, 2016 at 1:05

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