By Kamal Moo, Esq.
If you’re a musician who’s serious about your work, it’s essential to have a basic understanding of copyright law and how it can protect you. This article is intended to provide a brief overview of copyright and how, from a practical standpoint, it impacts songwriters, recording artists and the music industry in general.
What is a copyright?
A “copyright” is “a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship in a tangible medium of expression.” What does that long, funky-sounding sentence mean? It basically means that when you create a work of art, whether it’s a screenplay, a song, or a novel, the law gives you certain exclusive rights to that work. So, if an unscrupulous book publisher steals the manuscript for your latest novel and publishes it without your permission, copyright law allows you to sue that publisher.
What rights does a copyright give you?
Generally, you have: 1) the right to make copies of your work (as the name “copyright” would imply), 2) the right to distribute copies of your work, 3) the right to make derivative versions of your work (sequels, remixes, etc.), and 4) the right to perform your work publicly.
How does copyright law apply to music?
The music industry exists because of two types of copyrights. 1) the musical composition, and 2) the sound recording. A musical composition copyright protects the lyrics and melody in a song, and the sound recording copyright protects the audio recording.
Sometimes people get the two types confused. I find that the following analogy helps clarify things: if a musical composition is like the blueprint to build a house, then the sound recording would be the finished house. The musical composition gives us the blueprint for the song and the sound recording is the audio recording of an artist’s performance of the song. So, for example, if Beyonce and Barbra Streisand record their own versions of the same musical composition, as you can imagine, the resulting sound recordings would be very different.
How do music companies benefit from copyright law?
Like any other kind of property, copyrights can be sold and licensed. The practical result is that music publishers own musical compositions and record labels own sound recordings. So, when a songwriter is offered a “publishing deal,” they are signing an agreement to write musical compositions exclusively for that music publisher. And, when a singer is offered a “record deal,” they’re signing an agreement to exclusively make sound recordings for that record label. Now, of course, sometimes the songwriter and singer are the same person, so it’s important to know which rights are involved in a contract, because the deals are very different.
Should you register your work with the Copyright Office?
Under the law, you automatically receive a copyright upon creation of your work, BUT (and this is a big “but”), you won’t be able to sue someone unless you register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office (www.copyright.gov). Many types of works can be registered online and the cost is approximately $35 per registration.
Some people have asked me whether mailing a copy of the work to themselves would give them copyright protection (a.k.a. “the poor man’s copyright”), and I always say the same thing: there is nothing in copyright law that recognizes that method as a substitute for registration with the Copyright Office. So, if you’re serious about protecting your work, you should register it properly.
How long does a copyright last?
Under current law, a copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. So, if I write a song today and I die in the year 2020, my heirs would own the copyright to my song until 2090.
In the case of works for hire, a copyright lasts for 120 years after the date of creation, or 95 years after publication, whichever is shorter. So, for example, if a movie studio commissions me to write a movie score as a work for hire, that score would be protected for 120 years after I complete it, or 95 years after the movie is released to the public.
Once a copyright expires, the work enters the public domain and anyone can use it without permission.
As a reminder, this article is only intended to be a brief overview. There are many nuances in copyright law that would require an entire textbook to explain in-depth. Needless to say, if you are offered any kind of music contract, it would be in your best interest to consult a knowledgeable attorney. I can’t even count the number of times clients have come to me regretting the fact that they didn’t hire an attorney to review a contract before they signed it.