Alphorn and copyright

Anyone who uses alphorn sheet music and performs alphorn music in public is treading on the slippery slope of copyright law. In the context of the publication of notes on, I did some research on the subject – here is my summary:

Copyrights in copyright law

Copyrights are the rights of authors to their “works”. A work is considered to be a personal creation in the field of literature, art – e.g. pieces of music – and science. (National) copyright law determines the scope of these copyrights. In Switzerland, this is the Federal Act on Copyright and Related Rights (Copyright Act, URG) of 1992, in Germany the Copyright Act (UrhG) of 1965 (and its reform in 2021). Internationally, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is striving to harmonize national copyright laws.

The core of copyright law is the (intellectual) property of authors in their works. Anyone who creates a work is free to decide on the use of their work – in particular on its publication, reproduction and performance – and is entitled to remuneration for its use. For example, a composer may decide that his or her music may not be used in the campaign videos of a particular political party. He is entitled to shares in publications of his sheet music and royalties from the performance of his pieces or their use in audiovisual products. This property right arises automatically through the creative act.

Copyrights are valid until 70 years after the death of the author. After expiry of this protection period, these are so-called “free works”. Alfred Leonz Gassmann died in 1962; even his works are therefore protected for a few more years. The author may transfer or bequeath his rights to third parties.

Because copyright owners cannot negotiate with all users individually, this work is carried out by so-called collecting societies. For the copyrights of composers and music publishers, these are SUISA (CH) and GEMA (DE). Authors of musical works can contractually delegate the management of their property rights to a collecting society by becoming a member. The collecting societies then collect the royalties from the users of musical works and transfer them to the respective rights holders.

The crux of the alphorn notes

Musical works are put on paper in graphic form (notes & scores). The musical notation itself is also protected by copyright. Even if a composer has been dead for more than 70 years, the scores can still be subject to copyright as a written work. When sheet music is published, it is customary for the publisher to assume part of the copyright. Internationally, a share of 1/3 of the performance and broadcasting rights is considered the upper limit. In general, however, it can be said that the publication of alphorn sheet music is not a profitable business. This also applies to self-published publications. Even very successful alphorn composers barely cover their costs – without compensation for the time spent on printing and distribution.

The question of copies is of practical relevance for alphorn players. There is a publication with SUISA’s view on this; it states: As a general rule, copying sheet music without the consent of the publisher (or the author in the case of unpublished works) is prohibited. The production of photocopies of entire works or excerpts for choirs, brass bands, orchestral societies, etc., for example, requires the publisher’s permission. This principle applies regardless of whether the publisher explicitly refers to a copying ban on the paper. As an exception to this rule, only the narrowly defined “personal use” is permitted, i.e. use within the circle of closely related persons (families and close friends), schools and companies. For example, it is possible to scan purchased notebooks onto your own e-reader or make a copy for annotations. The word “schools” is open to interpretation. Music schools are usually included. It should be noted that schools and companies make annual lump-sum payments via ProLitteris (the collecting society for written works) as compensation for photocopies of copyrighted material. The distribution of pdf files by alphorn teachers outside an institution, on the other hand, falls into a murky gray area. Furthermore, the restriction applies that in the case of schools only “excerpts” may be copied (an alphorn piece is a work, and not an excerpt from a collection).

It seems quite clear: copies (photocopies or transcripts) of sheet music for alphorn workshops, the use of copied sheet music within alphorn formations or the distribution of “complete choirs” for festivals and alphorn clubs are only legal with the permission of the copyright owner. A law-abiding alphorn formation buys a set of sheet music for each member or obtains a copying permit. As the repertoires usually consist of pieces by different composers and collections, this can mean a great deal of time and money.

Out-of-print works are a special case. The topic is very present in alphorn music. The sheet music of well-known works – self-published at some point by a composer who has since died – is no longer available through official channels and the owners of the copyrights can only be traced with considerable effort. The pieces circulate as photocopies of photocopies. Anyone wishing to rehearse and perform them today is therefore faced with a dilemma, as the SUISA principle quoted above also applies explicitly to out-of-print works. See my project on Robert Körnli.

From the alphorn players’ point of view, the use of sheet music that is made available for free download with the consent of the copyright holder is less problematic. Since SUISA has waived the exploitation of copyrights to the sheet music, composers can also create a license for the online publication of their scores for registered works (provided they have not assigned the rights to a publisher). However, this does not mean that they waive their copyrights to the works. In particular, the right to remuneration for the use of the works – and thus the obligation to register performances – remains in place.

Performances of alphorn music

In the case of performances of alphorn music, the authors are entitled to remuneration for the use of their works. The only exceptions to this are private performances (e.g. a birthday serenade for Aunt Lisa). Anyone playing the alphorn in the great outdoors will have an audience at some point; as with street music, SUISA waives licence fees for such spontaneous gatherings of people without a clear organizer.

Professional concerts must be settled by the organizers with SUISA in accordance with SUISA’s Tariff K; the levies for copyrights then amount to a maximum of 10% (usually in the region of 8%) of the income or costs. In amateur music – i.e. for the majority of alphorn players – the collecting societies rely on lump-sum payments via the music associations. SUISA’s Tariff B provides for annual contributions of CHF 6-10 per member for music societies (including alphorn societies). Large associations – such as the Swiss Yodelling Association – receive discounts; of the 2,000 or so alphorn players in the Yodelling Association, around CHF 10-15,000 – after deducting around 13% of administrative costs – goes to the composers of alphorn music each year. The association thus finances approximately one composer in a 20% workload.

With the lump-sum payment via the association, however, the alphorn players do not receive a blank cheque. The license is only valid for the associations’ own events. This covers, among other things, the official yodeling festivals, but not alphorn meetings of other organizers or performances at party meetings, 1st of August events or company celebrations. For such performances, the organizers must settle accounts with SUISA using the set lists; different tariffs apply depending on the type of event. According to the contract, ad hoc groups must also invoice their concerts separately via Tariff K. This also applies to concerts organized by the clubs with ticket prices of over 45 francs. If alphorn players perform on the mountain in exchange for an annual pass of a mountain railway, this is not covered by the flat-rate payment of the yodelling association, but would have to be settled by the mountain railroad with SUISA.

In order to ensure a fair distribution of the license income, SUISA requires alphorn players to provide lists of the pieces played. The Yodelling Association compiles this list electronically via a platform; smaller formations submit a form annually. These notifications are actually mandatory, but are not always made. Hans-Jürg Sommer told me that he estimates that at most 1/4 of all performances are reported. The non-notification has no influence on the total amount of fees distributed by SUISA, but it does have an influence on the distribution among the different composers.


Anyone who has received a good rating at a yodeling festival is proud to post a video of their performance online. However, this infringes the composer’s copyrights.

There is little leeway when publishing recorded third-party compositions on YouTube. A well-known alphorn player in the scene has lovingly recorded hundreds of pieces over the years and uploaded them to his channel – since a letter from SUISA, he has restricted himself to his own compositions. One may ask whether the deletion was really a favor to the composers: Many alphorn players have used the recordings to select pieces for rehearsal; they may have bought the sheet music afterwards. An alternative to listening-before-studying are playable scores (e.g. Musescore or MusicXML files); since the conversion of sheet music into audio takes place on the user’s computer, there is no legal conflict with the performing rights exploited by SUISA. Michel Fellmann, for example, uses this solution, which is helpful for users.

The performance of music is also a creative act. But as such it is not considered a “work” in the sense of copyright law. Instead, we speak of the performance of a work by performers. In the case of recordings (audio and video), related rights (also known as ancillary copyrights) must be observed in addition to copyrights. Related rights are the rights of performers (musicians, singers, actresses, etc.) to their performances, the rights of producers of sound and image recordings to their recordings and the rights of broadcasters to their broadcasts. SWISSPERFORM (CH) / GVL (DE) are responsible for the exploitation of ancillary copyrights. Anyone who films and publishes the performances of others risks legal problems with them. All those Japanese tourists who share their videos of us alphorn players on the Pilatus via Instagram…

My final take-away

I dare say that every active alphorn player occasionally infringes copyrights. Some are deliberate violations with financial motives, others are due to convenience or ignorance. This systematic disregard for (intellectual) private property contrasts with the otherwise loudly expressed conservative attitude in the alphorn scene. It has hardly any legal consequences, though. The lawyers only get in touch in blatant cases. Self-publishing composers have no recourse against shared dropboxes and social media.

From an ethical point of view, things look different. Alphorn players see themselves as guardians of cultural heritage. Doesn’t this also include fair compensation for the creators of the works? And is compensation via a lump sum at the price of a sausage at the yodeling festival sufficient? Ultimately, you need to decide for yourself in front of your mirror. My personal recommendation: buy some sheet music from time to time – even if you don’t really need it in paper form. Or express your appreciation for the work of the composers by making a voluntary contribution – I have added links to this in the sheet music section. Only if we alphorn players support the work of the composers we make a sustainable contribution to a living tradition.

Box: Interview with Bruno Marty

Bruno Marty is Managing Director of the Swiss Performers’ Cooperative SIG in Zurich. He knows the music industry both as a former musician, booker and promoter and as a member of various organizations (action swiss music, Suisseculture, mx3, Swissperform, etc.). As a guest lecturer for music law issues, he introduces budding musicians at the Lucerne, Zurich and Bern music academies to the basics of copyright, ancillary copyright and contract law.

naturtoene: Bruno, what do musicians need to know about copyright today?

Bruno Marty: Copyright law gives musicians rights to protect themselves and at the same time defines how they can use these rights. In other words, they determine whether, when and how their works or performances may be used. Musicians should know what they have to do in general and know where they can get information if necessary. The questions are often very complex in detail. I certainly don’t claim to turn my students into legal specialists. However, you should know where the tricky sticking points are. And I tell them: when in doubt, ask & talk to each other.

Where are the sticking points?

The topic of “arrangements” is always exciting: playing a composition true to the original (covering) is a priori permitted. As soon as they are changed, the composer’s consent is required. However, the boundary between cover and adaptation is not always precise and usually has to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. The way this topic is dealt with varies from scene to scene. In jazz, for example, pieces still “count” as covers, even if the performers are very far removed from the original.

Another tricky issue for professionals is dealing with grades. In practice, the strict requirements of the law are probably not always adhered to. You might try out a piece without buying the sheet music. It is clear that such nonchalance is no longer acceptable in a larger performance at the latest.

Does SUISA then intervene?

SUISA’s mission is to exploit copyrights, i.e. to collect license fees and distribute them as fairly as possible. However, SUISA is not a copyright police force. However, it intervenes in response to information from the copyright owner, which is rather rare. Many composers appreciate it when their works are played and adapted. Legal disputes are more likely to arise when publishers and producers are involved and larger economic interests are at stake.

So can alphorn players assume that, as breadwinning amateurs, they are not affected by copyright law?

I find the dichotomy between amateur and professional problematic. It implies a different value. The aim of a collecting society is to distribute the collected royalties as far as possible to the composers and performers who have been effectively used. As a result, some receive more than others. A company must also keep an eye on profitability in order to distribute as many royalties as possible and not use them up in administration. Amateurs who are played on the radio or perform at major events are also billed accurately.

Dominique Schwarz from SUISA and Bruno Marty from the performers’ cooperative SIG kindly supported me in writing this article – thank you very much!

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