The New Face of Music (And Copyright)

Christopher Goldston, NCTM

MTNA Business Digest, Volume 1, Issue 3

April 2022

COVID, virtual teaching, Zoom, downloadable PDFs…all have changed music instruction forever, and rapidly. Don’t let it change your respect for the laws governing copyrights, purchasing music, and sharing that music with others.

TL; DR (too long, didn’t read) key point:

When in doubt, purchase your own copy.
Supporting the livelihood of your fellow musicians
ultimately benefits your students.

Even before the pandemic, the digital revolution for music had started. Brick and mortar music stores were closing, publishers started selling digital versions of solos and collections, publishers began downsizing, and people were sharing public domain music on the internet and International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP). Then, March 2020 (and the pandemic) came, and the results for music instruction have been revolutionary! Suddenly, teachers who had been reluctant to even register students online for a competition were joining online discussion groups, sharing specs for the best microphones and cameras for virtual teaching. We all love our students, music, and teaching and have adapted through this extraordinary time.

But, with virtual teaching, some of the conveniences of in-person instruction were lost. You can’t just impulsively share a new book or piece with a student, when they don’t have a copy. Virtual teaching and assigning literature now require more planning. But, like it or not, virtual teaching is here to stay, and many of us have embraced it.

Of course, it is easy to just snap a photo of a piece or make a PDF to share. But is it right, or even legal? No! Here are some questions and scenarios, many that can be addressed with the TL; DR key point:

When in doubt, purchase your own copy.
Supporting the livelihood of your fellow musicians
ultimately benefits your students.

You are teaching virtually, a student mentioned their new favorite piece is from their school musical, and you have the perfect arrangement for them at home. Can’t you just snap a photo and send to them during the lesson to get to work right away?

This would fall under “emergency use.” If the intention is that the student would be purchasing the music right away, then a digital or printed copy could be used, then destroyed once you have received the legal copy. Be sure to check and make sure that the composition in question is not available digitally…it could be just as fast for them to purchase and download the music immediately.

A student purchased a digital download of music, but I don’t seem to have the same piece! Can’t they just share the PDF with me?

Even though that would be easy and convenient, you should really have your own copy, especially if you are teaching virtually (not in the same location as your student during the lesson).

A student heard a song they love, and found a version online. The PDF preview includes the main part of the song they like. Can’t they just screenshot the preview, and work from that?

No! If the option to purchase is there, be sure to purchase the music!

If I make copies of music for a few of my students, it doesn’t really impact the lives of composers that much, right? After all, it is only a few copies.

Actually, it has a huge impact. If composers don’t see sales or feel that people are interested in their music, they will stop creating and not be motivated to produce new works. It is extremely important to support composers by purchasing music.

I am simplifying my life, moving into a 200 square foot tiny house, and want to digitize my million book music library to use on my iPad. Can I do this?

Yes! If you have purchased the music, want to digitize it for your own personal use, and don’t intend on sharing the files with others, then why not? Of course, you should still consider purchasing digital downloads of the books, which would be a clearer PDF.

I only teach really old public domain music by dead composers. Can’t my students just go to IMSLP to download the music, instead of paying for it?

Well, yes. But if you have your favorite edition of the piece, they should just buy the book. Have you noticed that music stores and publishers are dwindling in number? Honestly, my theory is that this is due in part to people no longer purchasing classic editions of public domain music, which obviously would have created great income for publishers before the digital age. Some digital music online is full of mistakes and typos, so free isn’t always better!

I have written some music and want to self-publish, but now you have me scared that people are going to steal my music. How do I copyright my music?

Basically, there are three steps in copyright:

  • Step 1 – The mere creation of a work and either writing it down or recording it means that it is copyrighted. Technically, there is nothing else to do.
  • Step 2 – By adding the copyright symbol, date and your name to a work, you are telling others “This is mine, back off, and please don’t steal!”
  • Step 3 – You can officially register your copyright with the government, but this is not always necessary. A copyright lawyer should be consulted for more specific questions about this.

Gosh, now I have even more questions than before! And what about YouTube, virtual recitals, streaming…

It’s overwhelming, for sure! Many questions you may have may already be answered on MTNA’s website. Be sure to visit the MTNA Copyright Guidelines for Music Teachers  for more information.

In 2021, I finally made the leap to start self-publishing, founded Goldston Music, and created an online store at I am excited to be able to offer new works by not only me, but also by my mother Margaret Goldston, who died in 2003. At this time, I am offering only digital downloads, and each download is stamped on each page with proof of purchase, with the additional text “This work is licensed for use by one person only. Unauthorized sharing, photocopying, or reproduction is illegal.” Most websites that offer digital downloads have similar language. Be sure to check PDFs for this proof of purchase.

Disclaimer: I am a musician, not a lawyer. Always consult a copyright lawyer if you have specific questions about copyright or publishing. The best advice I can give is to support your fellow musicians and new music by purchasing (not sharing) the music. If you have favorite composers, check to see if they are starting to self-publish on their own personal websites in addition to works they may have through common distributors. Artists, musicians and composers will be more inspired and motivated to create (and financially able to do so) if you support them by purchasing their music. Again…

When in doubt, purchase your own copy.
Supporting the livelihood of your fellow musicians
ultimately benefits your students.

Christopher Goldston


Christopher Goldston, NCTM, is MTNA National Secretary-Treasurer and the national coordinator of the MTNA Composition Competition. He is published by Alfred and FJH, and recently founded Goldston Music, devoted to publication of new works by Christopher and Margaret Goldston.



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