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Performing and Recording Messiah

A small nonprofit community chorus will perform Messiah, having purchased music that is copyrighted by a foreign company. Since Handel is long dead, what rights if any do we need to perform the work for 100 people, put it on a CD with segments on our website? There is no admission charge. Soloists will be paid a small fee.
Replies (6): Threaded | Chronological
on October 19, 2012 2:47pm
Michael:  Realistically you should have no obligations to pay performance or recording royalties.  Handel's music is in the public domain (and in fact I don't think England had legal provisions for copyrighting music during his lifetime).
Unfortunately you bring up a question that falls into a gray area under U.S. law.  The EDITION you are using is copyrighted, and that copyright is probably legal and valid.  But it does NOT cover Handel's music, because music once in the public domain can never be re-copyrighted.  What it DOES cover is any new intellectual property that went into preparing that new edition.  (This is under U.S. law, which covers your performance in the U.S. even if it would be interpreted differently in the country in which the edition is copyrighted.)
So you are very smart to bring up the question, but I don't think the answer can be found in the U.S. copyright law.  And any questions of admission charges or fees paid are irrelevant, UNLESS you are looking at avoiding the performance royalties under Fair Use that would be forgiven for performance of copyrighted works by valid educational organizations.
Or so I understand it. 
on October 20, 2012 9:54am
One way to be absolutely sure you are in the clear is to use a public domain score. I have published the scores to the choruses on my web site at this link
These were made from the 1912 Shirmer score which is now in the public domain.
Being a small community chorus, some of your singers might find our part-predominant CDs very helpful in learning their notes. They are found at this link
If you purchase a box set of CDs, you can enter into a licensing agreement with us and make legal copies of our CDs for $6.50 each, making it quite economical to supply every member of your choir who can benefit from such an aide.
Jim Taylor Inc.
on October 21, 2012 8:22am
You can get MusicEase Messiah from the Mac App store. It is the complete Messiah and is fully transposable to any key. Additionally, before you print you can change the font used for lyrics to any font/size available on your computer, re-scale the music larger or smaller, automatically re-castoff and justify, extract any combination of parts, transpose individual parts (for transposing instruments), scale some parts to a different size than other parts in the same system, etc. The cost is $20 and no royalties are required (it is based on the Chrysander edition which is public domain.) The program will also play the music (as MIDI files). Make as many copies of the MIDI files or printed music as you like for no additional cost.

Alternatively, you can get the Christian Virtual Hymnal from MusicEase Software ( which contains the complete Messiah with all of the above functionality in addition to some 3,500 pd hymns (all of which are also transposable and fully customizable.)

Gary Rader
on October 26, 2012 10:38am
Oops! "You can get MusicEase Messiah from the Mac App store" should be "Messiah MusicEase" instead of the reverse in my previous message.
Gary Rader
on December 29, 2012 5:10pm
My understanding is that anything older than the 1800s is in the public domain. You simply list the author, version, & date written in the program/liner notes.  There are a couple versions of Messiah outside the Dublin. There is actually a German-voiced one (sometimes referred to as the Mozart orchestration), there is a period-instrument one, & there is another one that adds in the chorale (Break Forth into Joy in Part the Second-See the Boston Baroque Players cd).
on December 29, 2012 9:20pm
Kim:  If only it were that simple!  The problem with works from before 1800 (or up through the 20th century until December, 1977, for that matter) is that PREVIOUSLY UNPUBLISHED WORKS may be published and a modern copyright may be claimed under U.S. law.  In other words, they were NEVER considered to be in the public domain, because they had never been made available.
That turned up, I believe, in manuscripts of previously unknown pieces, possibly including one or more by Bach, that had been stolen from German museums in WW II and turned up in a museum in Russia or Ukraine, and some works have indeed been published with a modern copyright from those mss.
Just about NOTHING regarding copyright is actually simple!  You're probably right about "Messiah," including the Mozart reorchestration, but that doesn't necessarily generalize to all other older music.
All the best,
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