From writing songs to sniffing out samples of your recordings, one of the most important bodies of knowledge for any musician to have is of basic copyright law. Emerging from the Constitution, copyright—the protection of the expression of an idea—is the basis of the monetization of much of the work musicians do.
Copyright does not protect an idea. For example, if you were to ask 20 different musicians to express “love” musically, it would result in 20 different copyrighted works. Copyright does not protect titles, either. That’s why you can hear many different versions of songs with the same title.
The copyright holder of a musical work owns the sole and exclusive right to:
● Reproduce the work, as in the form of a recording.
● Publicly perform the work, as in a song being played on the radio.
● Prepare derivative works, such as alternative versions of a song.
● Distribute copies by sale or transfer of ownership.
● To perform the work publicly through digital transmission, when in the form of a sound recording.
When a third party does any of these acts without the permission of the copyright holder, it is copyright infringement. The most publicized infringement over the years has been plagiarizing a song. In order to prove this kind of infringement, a copyright holder must prove: (a) that the infringing work is substantially similar to the original, and (b) that the infringer had access to the original work.
Copyright protection in the United States begins when a copyrighted work is “fixed in a tangible medium,” or recorded in some manner. Singing a spontaneous melody and lyrics over a chord progression you’re playing in between sets at a gig is not protected. However, doing the same thing with your smart phone recording it “fixes” your composition to a tangible medium, which is protected by copyright. Protection lasts for the life of the last surviving author, plus 70 years.
Even though a musical work is protected by copyright without registration, it’s a good idea to register the copyright with the Register of Copyrights (copyright.gov). Registering your music and recordings gives it additional protections, and adds it to a database allowing those who may want to use your protected work to find you and obtain permission to do so.
There’s a distinction between copyright protection for compositions, and the recordings of those compositions, that has resulted in two of the multi-billion dollar businesses most associated with music. The music-publishing business is wrapped around the protection of musical compositions. The “record business”—regardless of the configuration from vinyl records to cassettes to CDs to digital downloads—is the protection of audio recordings or musical compositions. An understanding of copyright law, what rights you own, and when to share them or sell them to others will go a long way in helping you weave your way through the maze of the industry.