No twentieth-century composer of choral music has experienced more copyright infringements than William L. Dawson. In the past three years more than 10 new publications have appeared on the market in which arrangers have either consciously or subconsciously “borrowed” compositional and textual ideas invented by Dawson. Melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic motives from Dawson’s arrangement of There is a Balm in Gilead have appeared without authorization or permission, as the creation of other arrangers in no less than 12 hymnals and sacred song collections. One might consider it a compliment that other arrangers/composers find the Dawson works so fascinating and unique that they incorporate materials from the copyrighted compositions into their own arrangements. In the Baroque era such borrowing from other composers or re-using material from earlier, and sometimes quite different works was quite normal. This was a practice fairly widespread in a period when themes were largely fashioned on prototypes and when originality was measured as much in terms of craftsmanship as of melodic invention. Handel and Bach both re-used their old music as it suited their needs. The practice was justified by the extent to which the “borrowed” material was refashioned.
(From the Choral Journal article “William Dawson and the Copyright Act,” by John Haberlen)