Copyright law tends to get thrown under the bus in favor of more interesting topics like marketing and social media, but it’s actually one of the most important things to understand as an indie musician.
Think about it: without copyright law, music would be a hobby. Anyone could record, distribute, perform, or sync your music with video without even asking you, let alone providing payment. In other words, copyright law is the very foundation of your music career, so it makes sense to understand it.
You can leave the finer points of the law to lawyers, but you should have a solid understanding of the basics. Not only will this knowledge help you feel more at ease when discussing contracts, you’ll also be able secure income streams and protect your rights.
Here’s 5 points of copyright that every musician should know:
1. Your Exclusive Rights
As a copyright owner, you get six exclusive rights. You alone can create copies of your song, distribute it, make derivatives, display it, and perform the composition and sound recording. (We’ll look at the difference between the composition and sound recording later.) If someone else wants to do any of these things, they need to get permission from you, and, in most cases, provide some sort of payment.
2. How to Get Copyright Protection
So now that you know what the rights granted by copyright are, how do you get them? You don’t actually need to register your song with the Federal copyright office to own the copyright (at least in the US). The moment you put your song into tangible form – written down or recorded – you automatically get the six exclusive rights we just looked at.
3. Is Registration Necessary?
So if you already get all your rights just by writing a song down, why waste time (and money) on a federal registration? If you sue for infringement of your music, a federal registration with the US Copyright Office entitles you to statutory damages and attorney fees. We won’t get into the technical points of statutory damages, but more times than not, it will be more financially beneficial for you to ask for statutory damages in the event of copyright infringement.
On top of that, a federal registration is the best proof of ownership you can get. The “poorman’s copyright” has historically been very popular among musicians. By sending a copy of the music to yourself via mail and leaving the package sealed, you essentially date the creation by the federal postmark on the letter. While this is better than no evidence, a federal registration holds much more weight in court.
There is no rule in copyright law that sets a minimum standard for infringement. This means that even a five second sample could be considered infringement. Using a popular song, or the “hook” of a song will put you at greater risk of infringing than using a lesser-known song. However, it’s best to play it safe and get permission for any copyrighted material you use.
Another point worth noting, you cannot copyright chord progressions or drum beats for the most part. Imagine how difficult it would be to write if someone had the basic rock drum beat or the I, IV, V chord progression copyrighted!
5. Two Different Kinds of Copyright
Everyone knows about the composition copyright. That’s the one you get for actually writing the song; it protects the arrangement of melody and lyrics. However, there’s another one that protects the unique arrangement of sounds – the sound recording copyright. The composition copyright is owned by the songwriter and the sound recording copyright is owned by the recording artist, so if you write and record your songs you’ve got two copyrights under your belt.
A song can have an infinite number of sound recording copyrights, but only one composition copyright. Think of it this way: if you wrote and recorded a song you would have a composition copyright and a sound recording copyright. If you recorded an acoustic version of that same song, you would have a second sound recording copyright. In the same way, when someone covers your song, they create their own sound recording copyright for the cover. They will, however, still need to get permission to use the composition copyright.
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