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Can I copyright my transcription of, say, a public domain Mozart symphony for brass quintet?

I downloaded a public domain PDF of a Mozart symphony. I used the musical content from the PDF and created an arrangement or a transcription for other instruments or voices. It is a transcription of a piece of music in the Public Doman for new, different instruments. I created a new work that evolved from the public domain work. I applied a great deal of creativity in choosing which music to assign to which instrument.

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    For copyright, it sometimes matters where you are living/working.
    – o.m.
    Sep 4, 2022 at 15:02
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    What is “my transcript” in the context of an instrumental piece? Sep 4, 2022 at 15:06
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    But what is a transcription? Do you mean that you took blank sheets of paper with music lines into the performance and actually marked the notes as you heard them? Sep 4, 2022 at 15:32
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    @MichaelHall That would be a good question for Music: Practice & Theory!
    – user46677
    Sep 4, 2022 at 15:34
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    @MichaelHall there are definitely arrangements that warrant copyright protection. If you take a flute part, cross out "flute," and write "violin," probably not. But many arrangements require more adaptation than that (for example, arranging a violin part for flute may require accommodation for the fact that the lowest part of a violin's range are not playable by a flute). You're right that nobody can copyright the notes themselves, but that doesn't prevent having copyright in an arrangement.
    – phoog
    Sep 4, 2022 at 18:29

2 Answers 2

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I originally wrote

A "transcription" and an "arrangement" are not at all the same thing.

But it seems that this was not quite correct.

Transcription

Merriam-Webste definers the musical sense of "transcription" as:

2 a : an arrangement of a musical composition for some instrument or voice other than the original 2 b : a recording (as on magnetic tape) made especially for use in radio broadcasting

Dictionary.com gives:

4 a the arrangement of a composition for a medium other than that for which it was originally written.

So it seems that a transcription, in this sense, is a kind of arangement

A transcription means writing down in some form of musical notation, or just words, all or some aspect of s musical work. In some cases it means just writing down the lyrics of a song. In some cases it means jut writing down the notes. But it seems that it often mean reworking the music for different instruments, which may mean changing the notes to accommodate the ranges of those instruments. It doesn't matter what tools or technology is used, it is the result that matters. In many cases a transcription does not contain any original content, and so is not able to be protected by copyright in US law.

Arrangement

Merriam-Webste defines the musical sense of "arrangement" as:

2 b : a piece of music that has been hanged so that it can be performed by particular types of voices or instruments

Dictionary.com gives:

6 a the adaptation of a composition to voices or instruments, or to a new purpose.

An arrangement is often a different but closely related piece of music. It may be as simple as shifting to another key. It may involve adding or removing sections of the work, adding or removing voices, adding or removing repeats, or altering the lyrics. There are special provisions in US copyright law doe cover versions to be made without the permission of the copyright owner, but these do not always apply. An arrangement may be original enough to get its own copyright. In any case, an arrangement of a PD work does not need permission from anyone, because no one owns the copyright to the original work.

Statement from the Question

I created a new work that evolved from the public domain work. I applied a great deal of creativity in choosing which music to assign to which instrument.

That sounds like an arrangement (not a transcription) that is quite likely protected by its own copyright. Copyright protects an eligible work as soon a it is "fixed in a tangible form" and a computer file or printout counts.

Conclusion

Whether a work is creative enough to be protected is a very fact-intensive determination, and one that this site cannot make. One might, in such a case, want to consult a lawyer with music copyright expertise. If this happens in the US, one might want to register a copyright in the work.

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  • My answer is hidden. It was deleted 1 hour ago by Dale M♦. An arrangement and a transcription are considered the same thing in music. noun noun: transcription; plural noun: transcriptions 2. an arrangement of a piece of music for a different instrument, voice, or group of these. "a transcription for voice and lute" I transcribed or arranged a piece of music that is in the public domain for a new, different, group of instruments.
    – Mavarique
    Sep 4, 2022 at 22:49
  • @Mavarique not quite: A transcription is writing down the heard in a way to read it for later play. An arrangement is putting a piece on different instruments to get a specific sound mix. Like, I can write down the imperial march starting with A0 A0 A0 E1 A3 A0 E1 A3 A0 - but then it makes a huge difference if I use that and play it on a guitar or a full-blown church organ. They are not equal, especially since transcribing is only part of altering the notation to get it to different instruments. E.g. the notation above is for a 6-string, but for shamisen, the notes would be different
    – Trish
    Sep 5, 2022 at 7:58
  • @Trish That is something like what I thought, but you can see from the dictionary def in my answer and from several other dictionary defs online that "transcription" is in fact commonly used for arranging music for a different instrument or set of instruments, and to that extent Mavarique is quite correct. Please recheck the basis for your comment. Sep 5, 2022 at 13:27
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    As someone who actually played in an orchestra all through uni: the dictionary is oversimplifying it. Arranging music is more than transcribing, but all transcribing is also arranging.
    – Trish
    Sep 5, 2022 at 14:39
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    @Mavarique "transcription" has multiple senses in music. One sense is synonymous with "arrangement." Another sense is not (namely, writing down on paper exactly what someone played in a performance). This sense of "transcription" is not at all the same as "arrangement," as the answer originally stated.
    – phoog
    Sep 5, 2022 at 20:08
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Sure, you can copyright that. Mozart's music is in the public domain and no one would object to you using it.

As for the copyright, what are you seeking to protect? Even though you have invested time in this project, there is very little creative content beyond your choice of which instrument does what. If someone else came along and chose the same instruments for a piece you arranged, you would have a nearly impossible time proving that the clarinet for melody x was your creative idea only. If you're worried that someone might steal copies of your arrangement, that happens frequently and even music published by major publishers goes unpunished because it costs an obscene amount of money to sue someone for infringement.

I'd say, focus on getting your music in front of people who would be willing to pay you for it, save the copyright fee, and just learn to live with the fact that people might illegally download/share/copy it.

I've sold my own music for quite a while. I'm much more concerned with the challenge of finding people to sell it to than the challenge of protecting it from piracy. And for what it's worth the vast vast majority of musicians are honest people.

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