All online piano lessons use one of two types of music to teach piano: public domain pieces or copyrighted works. It's important to understand how the law defines these and how they differ, as the type of music used may be a deciding factor when you choose a program to learn piano online.

Copyrighted Works
Whenever an individual creates a composition, he or she maintains the exclusive legal rights to that piece. This is known as a copyright, and it gives authors full legal right to use and distribute their compositions as they see fit. While you can sell, transfer or inherit copyrighted material, the copyright itself remains intact until it expires. With copyrighted music, you cannot legally distribute, reproduce or perform the composition without proper licensing.

Public Domain Compositions
On the contrary, a public domain composition is a creative work that is not protected by copyright and which may be freely used by everyone. This means you can freely arrange, reproduce, perform, publish or record the composition.

From Copyright to Public Domain
Copyrights eventually expire. When they do, the copyright owner no longer has exclusive rights to the song. Any compositions not protected under copyright laws are considered to be in the public domain.

Under U.S. copyright law regarding musical works, any works published between 1923 and 1978 have a maximum copyright protection of 95 years from the first year the piece was published. Works published prior to 1923 are in the public domain. For pieces published after 1978, the copyright is valid for the life of the longest surviving author plus an additional 70 years. Therefore, the earliest possible date for a new piece to enter public domain is in 2049.

Generally speaking, most musical works become public domain because of old age. However, the public domain is essentially the absence of any law that allows legal claim over a composition; therefore, a song can technically be in the public domain if absolutely no one in the world can demonstrate ownership of the piece.

Sheet Music: Copyrighted or Public Domain?
Online piano lessons vary when it comes to which type of music they use in their curriculum. Some use copyrighted works (legally so) while others strictly use public domain music. Mainstream, contemporary music is usually protected under copyright laws, while older, classical compositions are in the public domain. If you opt for a program that includes contemporary music, be prepared to pay extra. When sheet music is not part of the public domain, you must pay to use it, even if you are using it through an online piano program. For instance, you typically have to purchase the sheet music of any copyrighted songs you want to learn separately, as per the piano service's licensing agreements with the copyright holders.

When you're on the hunt for the perfect online piano program, make sure you find out whether the program uses copyrighted works or public domain pieces to help you learn to play the piano. The use of copyrighted material may cost you extra.

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