I'm considering creating a music transcription service as a side hobby project. With this service, clients could request that I transcribe a song (or parts of a song) for them in exchange for a fee. I would then send the client a PDF version of my transcription.

From my understanding, it is illegal when you sell or give away any derivative form of a copyrighted song (including sheet music). With this service, I do not intend to publish or sell sheet music. I would merely create the transcription, and give it to the client that requested it for a fee.

I understand it is perfectly legal to transcribe a song you purchased yourself, as long as it is for personal use. Does this become copyright infringement when someone else pays you to transcribe a song they've purchased, and this person is the only one who will get the transcription?

1 Answer 1


It is not "perfectly legal" to transcribe music for personal use. It is pretty likely that you can get away with it. The first thing to understand is that the act of transcribing is the creation of a derivative work (see the definitions part of Title 17). The core protection is section 106, which states that the owner of copyright has the exclusive right to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work. So it is not permitted to prepare derivative works, e.g. transcriptions, without permission from the copyright owner. There is a big however: section 107 provides a possible loophole, "fair use". If you were to be sued for violation of copyright in making an unauthorized derivative work, your attorney might well advise you to set forth a fair use defense. This question and answer summarizes the basics of the fair use defense. Probably the most important factor would be the 4th factor, the effect on market -- in the circumstance that you describe, the effect is likely to be low. If you do this as a paid service for others and not just for personal amusement, then a fair use defense becomes a stretch.

  • The production of many derived works involves speculatively producing a work or portion thereof before seeking a license, since if the produced work turns out terrible there would be no reason to waste the copyright holder's time licensing a work of which zero copies will be distributed. Requiring that people seek licenses before producing such works, rather than requiring that they be willing to shelve such works if a license ends up being denied, would be detrimental to both copyright holders and prospective licensees, and from what I can tell isn't expected in practice...
    – supercat
    Feb 21, 2021 at 18:36
  • ...beyond the fact that prudence would focus pre-approval investments on actions likely to maximize the chances of receiving approval. Someone who wishes to license a derived work from someone who is protective of the original's artistic integrity may benefit from having something to show the creator, especially if they think the creator would doubt the possibility of doing the work justice in the intended medium. If one wants to license a transcription of the Jaws theme for five piccolos and a kazoo, and can provide a recording of the piece with that instrumentation that actually "works"...
    – supercat
    Feb 21, 2021 at 18:41
  • ...one may be more likely to receive permission than if one simply asks for permission to transcribe the piece for five piccolos and a kazoo.
    – supercat
    Feb 21, 2021 at 18:41

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