UW law professor goes to music school, launches interdisciplinary Music Law & Policy class

Peter Nicolas was in a parent-child music class with his daughter when he decided to pursue a long-dormant passion.

Nicolas joined the University of Washington School of Law in 2000, and he’s nationally known as an expert in constitutional law, evidence, sexual orientation law and intellectual property. Now Nicolas has combined his legal training with his growing academic interest in the study of music. His new class, Music Law & Policy, is open to students in the law school and in the School of Music, where Nicolas is currently a post-baccalaureate student as well as an adjunct professor.

Music Law & Policy is open to students in the UW School of Law and in the School of Music.University of Washington
Student plays a flute at the front of a class 

Nicolas’ formal music training began just six years ago, not long after he enrolled his daughter in a class designed to awaken a love of music in children. The course did more than just that. It also inspired Nicolas, who has always loved music, to pursue a new path.

During one of the classes, Nicolas noticed a flyer for a free 30-minute music lesson and decided to take a chance. That lesson turned into continued private instruction in voice and piano and then a spot in a church choir.

Soon, Nicolas started taking classes at Shoreline Community College, where in 2021 he earned a degree in music performance. Still eager to learn more, he applied to the UW School of Music and auditioned as a vocalist. Now a music history major with a focus on vocal performance, Nicolas expects to earn his second bachelor’s degree this year.

With his music education underway, Nicolas decided to combine his interests. Music Law & Policy launched this quarter as an interdisciplinary course, at the same time Nicolas was named the director of the law school’s graduate program in intellectual property.

“I think going back to school made me a better teacher,” Nicolas said. “By the time all is said and done, I probably will have experienced the equivalent of four full years of taking classes with very different types of professors. There are a lot of things I’ve learned about how they do things that I’ve incorporated into my teaching.”

Music Law & Policy covers legal issues in the music industry, including intellectual property law as it relates to music and musicians. After building a fundamental understanding of music theory and copyright law, Nicolas asks students to examine court decisions that purport to rely upon principles of music theory. The class also covers subjects like trademark law and the right of personality and publicity.


“One of the things this experience taught me is that what music students go through in their field has more in common than people realize with what law students have to do to be successful,” Nicolas said. “There’s a lot in this course — technical reading and analysis — that music students must do when dealing with theory. Music history has a lot in common with the historical documents law students study. The ability to get up and perform in front of people is something that lawyers and musicians both must do.”

While other universities offer courses that teach music and law, Nicolas said his class is unique because he incorporates music principles into the learning process. Nearly all the music and law students are expected to perform an excerpt from one of the cases being studied. Law students with musical backgrounds can do solo performances, and those without musical backgrounds can engage in group-based musical performances. Students also complete a paper in groups consisting of both law and music students.

“People were very skeptical when I said I was going to teach a class to law students where they have to do music — not just at the superficial level, but to really know and understand it,” Nicolas said. “There is a reason for it. To some extent, the law sometimes comes to incorrect decisions because the people making the decisions don’t understand how music works.

“If we can bring these two disciplines together through teaching and scholarship, we can likely get better outcomes. When these disputes are decided, we can know what is unique about this particular song, that somebody shouldn’t be able to use without permission, and what about it is a basic building block of music, that anyone is free to use.”

Music Law & Policy covers legal issues in the music industry, including intellectual property law as it relates to music and musicians.University of Washington
A student plays the harp in front of a class. 


Nicolas prides himself on teaching students with varying educational backgrounds. In the past, he taught an interdisciplinary course in forensic nursing to those in the UW School of Law and the School of Nursing. He’s also currently teaching a course on sexual orientation law that is cross-listed in the Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies, where Nicolas also is an adjunct professor.

For music students, the Music Law & Policy course introduces potential copyright issues and the legalities of performing or filming a certain composer’s music. The law students enrolled in the course tend to be a combination of those generally interested in intellectual property law and others with a musical background.

“I’m viewing this in the long term as a good possible partnership,” Nicolas said. “Maybe some of the students who are undergraduates in music can go into the field of law and find a way to blend those two interests in the way I’ve tried to do myself.”

Source: https://www.washington.edu/news/2023/03/07/uw-law-professor-goes-to-music-school-launches-interdisciplinary-music-law-policy-class/