Anyone with a music studio can easily download a .midi file from the internet, and then use it to produce a musical track. A midi file exists online for almost every song in the world, and you can do a song title search along with the keyword midi. It's often an entire arrangement, everything one needs to produce a full blown song, all you need is further programming and studio equipment. One triggers various synthesizers to perform the contents of these .midi files, and it sounds like music.

Midi files contain every note that every instrument in the orchestra plays. Is this "art" or merely raw data? If I can obtain this data online, I won't have a lengthy data entry phase or need to do any composing, but it doesn't sound ethical or legal.

I'd have to get a license from the publisher to sell this new recording, of course. But what about for using someone else's midi from the internet? How do I handle credit or licensing here?

  • How do you intend to use it?
    – Putvi
    May 13, 2019 at 20:11
  • 1
    No different from sheet music. Some of this copyrighted, but not because of the music itself, but to protect the work of transcribing or arranging it. Plenty of it is free too. You can certainly use it for a performance, but you need to get separate license from the owner of the actual music.
    – Hilmar
    May 13, 2019 at 23:15
  • @Hilmar "to protect the work of transcribing ... it": this is not true in every jurisdiction. In particular, the US judiciary has rejected the "sweat of the brow" doctrine.
    – phoog
    May 24, 2020 at 16:07

2 Answers 2


Basically, the rules of preforming the song will be the same whether you preform the song or a computer does as far as copyright laws.

If you can't play a song publicly or record it the computer can not either etc, etc.

It is hard to answer more specifically without knowing what you intend to do.

  • Hi putvi, thank you for the insight. Because this midi represents the normal work that a composer would have to put into creating a musical track from scratch. It's a different issue than needing a mechanical license. I'm wondering if it's the same thing as "you can't copyright a musical arrangement?" I'm talking about using a free midi file I've found online to create an orchestral track that I can sing on vs. creating that orchestral track myself. This means i don't have to compose anything myself...the computer will do everything w/ midi data, but I didn't create this data. May 13, 2019 at 20:51
  • But the output is sound either way and that is what is protected, not the way its done.
    – Putvi
    May 13, 2019 at 20:52
  • "Not the way it's done." OK, thanks! Now let's just suppose that i've found a midi file of a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo. I get permission from publisher to release a new recording. I google "Jimi Hendrix famousguitar solo midi," and I find a file. You see, someone else transcribed and programmed this midi for this musical passage. Not me. Isn't it THEIR musical artistry at work, and not mine? I wanted to be sure I'm not stealing. But I think you're saying compensating or crediting this element of production isnt' necessary? May 13, 2019 at 21:01
  • No, I am saying that just like a famous solo is copyrighted if you or I play it, its copyrighted if you or the computer plays it. The song is copyrighted in any form ,if copyrighted.
    – Putvi
    May 13, 2019 at 21:16
  • 1
    The person making the song has rights, the person making the midi does not.
    – Putvi
    May 14, 2019 at 15:57

The midi is an artistic work and protected by copyright just as sheet music or an actual recording would be.

It’s possible, even likely, that a midi file running free on the internet is itself an infringing copy. If so, any purported licence is worthless. The onus is on you to validate a clear licensing chain from you back to the copyright holder of both the midi file and the music itself - the midi is a derivative work of the music with its own copyright (assuming it was legally created). The midi file has copyright protection even if the original music has entered the public domain (given the age of the technology, no midi file would have had its copyright expire as yet).

  • Yes, to this. It's the way to go.
    – Putvi
    May 13, 2019 at 21:31
  • Interesting. Thank you, Dale M! More questions if you don't mind. Do i describe what's a derivative of a derivative? Any key words to search for more info here? Web archives of Midi files seem to be everywhere for everything, so maybe there's identification labels somewhere hidden in the tracks, where I'm not aware. Or, if this is a wild west infringement arena to begin with, maybe a midi authors would want to remain anonymous. I don't know enough. Is the onus on the "midi composer" to obtain proper credit and compensation? May 14, 2019 at 4:22
  • @NardooncisButterfield you can search here for copyright questions - there are a lot and there is nothing special about midi files.
    – Dale M
    May 14, 2019 at 5:12
  • I don't think a midi transcription of music in the public domain enjoys copyright protection under US law.
    – phoog
    May 24, 2020 at 16:14
  • A Midi file can be created by converting an existing recording. This is a "slavish copy" and not original, so if the source recording was PD, the MIDI file would be also. This it is not correct thatr all midi files must be under copyright. Dec 22, 2020 at 0:04

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