Fact Sheets

Using Music In A Theatrical Production

What’s copyright?

When someone creates a piece of music (or a piece of text, a graphic, a photo, a film or anything else that is protected under copyright laws), a whole system of legal rights and obligations comes into play. These rights and obligations outline what someone can and can't do with the material.


Who owns the copyright in a piece of music?

There is generally more than one owner of copyright in any given musical track. The composer who wrote the music owns copyright in the musical works. The lyricist who wrote the lyrics owns copyright in the literary works. The artist who performed the music owns copyright in a sound recording of their live performance. Finally, the maker of the recording (typically a record company) owns copyright in the sound recording itself.


What rights do the copyright owners have?

The copyright owners (i.e. the owner of the work and the owner of the recording respectively) have a number of exclusive rights, including the right to:

  • Make copies of the tracks;
  • Perform music in public; and
  • Communicate the tracks to the public.


Do I need any licences to perform music live in a theatrical production?

Yes, and to determine what type of licence you need, you first need to work out how you are actually using the music.  Theatrical production or dramatic performance may fall into one of three categories, depending on the type of performance:

  1. If your performance is a dramatic context, i.e. a performance involving costumes, scenery, acting, scripted dialogue, dramatic effects, or a ballet, you will require a Dramatic Context Licence from APRA.
  2. To use music that was specifically written for a theatrical production, such as an opera, operetta, musicals or ballets, you must obtain the grand rights directly from the publisher of the musical works.  APRA can assist you in locating the relevant publisher.
  3. If your production does not fall in to the category of either a dramatic context or grand rights, it is a small rights performance, for which you will require an APRA Small Rights Licence.


We are a non-profit or amateur theatre group.  Do we still need a licence to perform music live?

Yes, you do.  There are no general exemptions from copyright requirements for non-profit and amateur groups. Most licence fees are based on a percentage of box office pro-rated to music use.  


Can we use recorded music in a theatre production?

To play a sound recording in public, for example from a CD or MP3 file, in addition to obtaining the relevant APRA licence outlined above, you also need a public performance licence from PPCA (or the relevant copyright owner). However, in most cases the venue that you are performing at will already have a PPCA public performance licence – just ask them.


Can we adapt the lyrics or music to suit our performance?

Any change to the music (other than those that fit within fair dealing exceptions) requires you to get permission from the relevant copyright owner, otherwise it is copyright infringement.  So for example, if you adapt or alter the composition or the lyrics you will need to get permission from the music publisher. 

Can we copy sheet music for rehearsals or performances?

No, not without the permission of the relevant copyright owners.  Practically this means that if you want to copy sheet music, you will need to contact the music publisher directly to request permission.  Keep in mind it may simply be easier to buy the number of copies you require.  


Can we distribute copied music to cast and crew?

No. The basic principle is that you cannot copy or distribute music without the permission of all relevant copyright owners.  In order to distribute copied music legally you need a licence from the relevant record company that controls the sound recording and an Audio Manufacture Licence from APRA AMCOS. 


What about using music obtained by file sharing for my theatre production?

Unless authorised, the vast bulk of P2P 'file sharing' is considered unauthorised copying and transmission of copyright material.  This activity hurts sales of music and the livelihoods of people in the business including Australian artists.


What if I download music to use for my theatre production from a site overseas where the law might be different?

Internet activities of this sort typically involve acts of copying, transmission, or distribution in both the ‘receiving and sending’ countries and the laws of each will apply. Be aware that if you download music files to your PC located in Australia, without the copyright owners' permission, you are committing an infringement of copyright under Australian law.


Can we videotape the theatre performance?
Yes, but you need to obtain a Domestic Use Video Licence administered by APRA AMCOS, ARIA or get permission from the copyright owners.   


What if the relevant copyrights have expired in the music I am using?

By way of background, copyright in the musical and literary works lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years and copyright in the sound recording lasts for 70 years from the date the recording was first published.  If copyright has expired, you do not need permission to reproduce, alter or perform the music. 


What are the consequences?

Penalties for copyright infringement range from injunctions, damages and costs through to fines of up to $60,500 for individuals and up to $302,500 for corporations for each infringement and/or up to 5 years imprisonment per offence. Police can also issue on-the-spot fines of $1320 per offence and seize any pirate product.


Need more information?

Music Rights Australia



(02) 8569 1177




(02) 9935 7900




(02) 8569 1111

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