Copyright laws affecting sheet music can be confusing because it is separate from a recorded piece of music and lyrics, if there are any, that used the sheet music.
Who Owns the Copyright
Unless otherwise specified by contract, the composer of the music represented by the sheet music owns the copyright, even if someone else transcribed the music onto paper. The composer also owns the copyright on sheet music if she uses computer software to transcribe a musical piece onto sheet music.
What is Copyrighted
The copyright is granted on the musical composition of which the sheet music is a textual representation. The composer may register the copyright on the sheet music separately from song lyrics, if there are any, or together, meaning the lyrics and composition would be governed by a single copyright. Whether the composition is copyrighted in combination with or separate from the lyrics, a sound recording performance of the piece of music is granted a separate copyright.
Separating the Parts
It may seem confusing that three different parts of a song may receive a copyright, but here is an example.
On November 5, 1991, the British singer George Michael released a live recording of a duet of the song "Don't Let the Sun Go Down," which he had performed with Elton John earlier that year. The song was originally recorded and released by Mr. John in 1974.
The lyrics to the song were copyrighted by Bernie Taupin, a long-time collaborator of Mr. John's. Mr. John owns the copyright to the composition, which is represented by the sheet music. For the 1991 version, Mr. Michael and Mr. John shared the copyright for the recorded performance.
A copyright is in effect for the life of the composer plus 70 years after his death. If the work was composed by more than one person, the copyright expires 70 years after the death of the last surviving composer.
If the piece of music was composed as a work-for-hire, the copyright expires 90 years after it was published or 120 years after it was created, whichever comes first.
The copyright is granted once the piece is composed, not when it is registered.
Licensing Sheet Music
If a musician wishes to record a songwriter's song, she must buy a license to the work. Similarly, when a publishing company wishes to sell the sheet music of a song, it must pay the composer a licensing fee. It is up to the composer and publishing agency to determine either a flat fee for the right to sell the music or a percentage of sales to be paid to the composer.