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A Musician's Introduction to Copyright

This post is part of a series called Creative Session: The Business of Music.
5 Musicians Who Overcame Poverty to Become Superstars
Creative Commons for Musicians: Can You Make Money by Giving Music Away?

Copyright is an important topic for every musician that is serious about his work. It is also a dangerous topic to comment on. Firstly, it is a confusing web of legal issues that keeps many lawyers employed - and I am not a lawyer. And secondly, copyright law varies from country to country - though many countries have now standardized. So don’t take this article as legal advice. Hopefully it will offer sensible advice to musicians in most countries. I advise you to do some research of your own, and consider paying someone qualified for some real legal advice.

What Is Copyright

Copyright is an old legal device (originating in 1710) designed to promote invention, innovation, creativity and the progress of science - basically new ideas of many kinds. It does this by giving the creator of an original work “exclusive right for a certain time period in relation to that work, including its publication, distribution and adaptation.” (Wikipedia) After that, the work enters the public domain.

The “certain time period” for copyright has been internationally standardized (with the Berne copyright convention), lasting between fifty to a hundred years from the author’s death, or a shorter period for anonymous or corporate authorship.

The US Copyright Office describes copyright in this way:

What is copyright?
Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.

What does copyright protect?
Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “What Works Are Protected.”

For further information, refer to the following websites, or your own national copyright office.

How Do I Copyright My Music?

In most countries, copyright is attached to an original work automatically. It doesn’t have to be registered, published, sold or have a copyright notice attached. The lyrics, music, arrangement and sheet music of a song each have their own copyrights.

The Public Knowledge site explains this in an article called Copyright Tutorial for Musicians:

If you composed a song, you own the copyright. If you recorded your song, you own the copyright in the sound recording. For sound recordings it is important to remember that ownership can belong not just to the performer but also to others involved in the creation of the sound recording. However, the performer always has a copyright in the sound recording unless he/she assigns this right away by contract.

To attract copyright, your idea has to be “secured on a fixed medium” - in other words, it can’t just be an idea in your head, or a song you only perform live. Your song must be recorded to CD, printed on manuscript paper, saved in a computer file, or even scribbled on the back of a napkin.

According to the US Copyright Office:

When is my work protected?
Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.

So it’s not essential to register your work in order for it to be copyrighted, but there are advantages, as we’ll see below. It is also good practice to attach a copyright notice to your work.

What Does Copyright Entitle Me To?

Copyright law gives musicians two great advantages:

  • It enables you to retain ownership of your music.
  • It stops others from profiting from your work at your expense.

These advantages are related, and come from the fact that you are in control of the publication, distribution and adaptation of your own music.

Many recording contracts have you sign the copyright of your music over to the record label. Be slow to do this, and weigh the cost carefully - you are giving away a lot.

How Do I Enforce My Copyright?

Enforcing copyright is not an easy thing. Because it is normally in the realm of civil law (rather than criminal law), you are responsible to both catch and sue copyright violators. And once you find yourself in court, you have to prove that the song is actually your own original work.

Even major record labels find this difficulty - especially with respect to stopping people downloading unauthorized copies of songs. In recent years their greatest victories (at least the more publicized ones) have been bankrupting pensioners and single mums caught downloading a few songs, while major pirates continue their business untouched.

So you may not want to rely on your own wit and good looks to enforce your copyright. A good way of proving the validity of your ownership, and the date you created the work, is by registering your copyright with a private registration service like the Musicians’ Copyright Association, who have branches in several countries. Their motto is “Protecting the work of musicians everywhere.” Agencies like this legally register your lyrics and music, along with the date of creation. The Australian site prices registration “from as low as $8.”

The alternative to registering your music is to post yourself a copy of your music. Your mail will be date stamped by the post office, and by keeping the envelope safe and unopened, you may be able to prove the creation date of your work. This is sometimes called “poor man’s copyright”. It is better than nothing, but the US Copyright Office warns that it is no substitute for actual copyright registration.

You can learn more here:

If you have had good experience with a private registration service, let us know in the comments. Some countries have official government registration systems.

Do I Have to Reserve All My Rights?

In the past, we tended to think in terms of “All rights retained” or “No rights retained”. But it is possible to retain some rights, but not all.

We’ll have a look at that topic next month when we look into the Creative Commons.

In the meantime, if you have some useful information about copyright you would like to add, please do so in the comments.

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