Copyright laws apply to MIDIs the same as they do to any other type of musical recording. Whether you are talking about a Compact Disc or whether you are talking about a MIDI file, there are really two areas of copyright that you need to consider: the rights of the one that composed the music, and the rights of the one that performed the music. Each of these copyright holders has specific rights under the law. In most cases, the performer or the person who does the MIDI sequencing must first get permission from the composer in order to use the song. Generally, this involves the payment of a fee, at least if the MIDI is intended to be used for commercial purposes.
There is some confusion about MIDIs and copyrights. Some folks think that, because they are the ones programming the MIDI file, that they don’t need to get permission from the composer of the music. This is, of course, not the case.
Using MIDIs without permission can result in a civil lawsuit. Just as is the case with MP3s, using MIDIs without permission from the copyright holder can carry stiff penalties, which can be as high as $100,000 for each song that is used. If you want to use MIDIs on your web site, for example, you will need to have permission from the copyright holders. You will have to have permission from the composer, and you will have to have permission from the performer. You should get permission from either of these two entities in writing. If the MIDIs are distributed or owned by composers that have contracts with BMI or ASCAP (the two largest music licensing agencies) then you may have to pay a fee to those companies. The fees start at $250 per year.
Why should you seek permission to turn a song into a MIDI file, or to use MIDIs that someone else created on your web site? Because the folks that wrote the song or that created the MIDI file deserve to see payment for the work that they did. To use MIDIs without permission from the copyright holders is tantamount to theft.
If you are a composer or if you are a person who creates MIDI files, your work is copyrighted from the moment you create it. To help secure your legal rights, you should consider registering your work with the Library of Congress.