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I have sheet music for a piece of classical music that bears the following copyright claim:

© 1927 Carl Fischer, New York. © renewed 1955 Fritz Fischer

Fischer is a well-known publisher of classical sheet music.

I assume that classical music composed more than a century ago is certainly now in the public domain.

I gather that Fischer can claim copyright on its written form of public-domain music because the company adds interpretive markings to its sheet music, and those markings themselves constitute creative content?

In that case the only contents of the sheet music covered by copyright would be whatever unique musical markings Fischer adds, and not the notes set down by the original composer?

Is there any reliable way to determine which elements of a work like classical sheet music are covered by a copyright claim, other than to infringe and have the claimant reveal that at trial?

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  • Should we assume that the music was not composed in 1927? – phoog Jan 23 '20 at 5:39
  • @phoog: Yes, assume it was composed years earlier, and that the composer has now been dead for at least 70 years (or whatever the minimum required is to put the original composition in the public domain). – feetwet Jan 23 '20 at 10:30
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I gather that Fischer can claim copyright on its written form of public-domain music because the company adds interpretive markings to its sheet music, and those markings themselves constitute creative content?

They can probably also claim copyright on editorial content. For example, a piece may have multiple sources that do not agree with one another, and the editor's choice of how to reconcile these inconsistencies is subject to copyright. Even the layout and typography or engraving are subject to copyright, so if the score is nothing but a faithful transcription of the composer's only manuscript, making a photocopy of the score is infringement.

In that case the only contents of the sheet music covered by copyright would be whatever unique musical markings Fischer adds, and not the notes set down by the original composer?

The notes themselves are not protected by copyright if the composition has passed into the public domain, but to make a score that does not infringe the copyright in the Carl Fischer edition, you would have to find another source. A copy made by hand might be okay because it would not reproduce the layout and other graphic design elements.

Is there any reliable way to determine which elements of a work like classical sheet music are covered by a copyright claim, other than to infringe and have the claimant reveal that at trial?

You can consult the sources that the editor used. Anything that isn't in the sources is editorial and therefore protected. If you can't find out what sources were used, find all the sources you can. Anything that's present in a source that is old enough to have passed into the public domain is in the public domain.

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  • Interesting. Are typography and layout copyrightable elements of any printed work – e.g., a printing of a Shakespeare Sonnet? Or do they not apply to written words, but they do to music because the typography and layout in the latter have been found to be sufficiently creative? – feetwet Jan 23 '20 at 10:36
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    Copyright applies to anything creative. So if the typographer makes decisions about fonts, placing of the title etc then those are covered by copyright. – Paul Johnson Jan 23 '20 at 14:42
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    @feetwet I think you should ask your question as a question. It's a good one. – Dale M Jan 28 '20 at 2:41
  • @DaleM Thank you – I just posted it here! – feetwet Jan 28 '20 at 4:20

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