OT: copyright of sheet music of pubic domain works

Not Dorico related, but really don’t know where else to ask, so here goes:

As far as I understand, sheet music has its own copyright, i.e. even if the musical work itself is public domain, the copyright of the sheet music (print, engraving) also belongs to the author (copyst?). That means I can’t (photo)copy/distribute such sheet music.

But, what if I were to create my own sheet music of the same musical work, based on one or more existing engravings? Can I distribute such sheet music?

Bear in mind that laws are different in different countries, and no one ever won a court case with the defence “But a man on the internet said it was ok”.

If you create your own engraving of pubic domain music, then that is entirely legal, and copyright is inherent in your engraving. Copying the notes off another edition is also ok, because you’re copying the music (which is out of copyright), and not the layout (which is in copyright).

Copying the notes off another edition is usually OK, but be careful if you are copying from a modern edition of old music, because the markings like dynamics, articulations, slurs, etc may be modern additions and therefore copyright of the (modern) editor.

Even if you are copying an urtext edition which gives the source of all the markings, there may still be an issue because of editorial selection from different (and conflicting) original sources - and that may include the pitches and/or durations of some of the notes.

I echo what was said above. Music that is in the public domain is fair game if you are creating your own editions. (Mind you, certain things are in the public domain in one country and not in others.) As Rob cautions, particular urtext editions can be tricky if there are unique aspects of that particular edition due to the heavy scholarship involved in creating said “urtext”. If every edition on IMSLP has a B natural and the brand new urtext by B&H or Henle is the only edition to have a B flat because of a new manuscript find, then you’d be best to avoid the B flat, if you catch my drift. Or perhaps add a little footnote that “some editions mark this note as Bb” or something similar. In the case of most of what’s on IMSLP, not only is the music in the public domain, but the editions themselves are too, which is why they can be posted. New editions are not, which is why you don’t see scans of newer urtexts. The music is in the public domain, the edition isn’t. You can, however, take one of the PD editions and mimic it exactly, and that would be OK too.

Thanks for the input. I found this paper, which is focusing on Canada, but nonetheless shows that the matter is not clear at all. Bring the digital files to the mix and it opens a whole new can of worms!