5 things every musician should know about copyright

July 30, 2014{ 59 Comments }

copyright image 5 things every musician should know about copyrightCopyright 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.

4. Infringement

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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Publishing Guide: Get Paid the Money You Are Owed

 

  • lifebohemia

    Question about sound recording copyright. I own the original composition copyright through the U.S. copyright office and I made a sound recording in a studio. I didn’t like what they did on everything, but some I did, so i want to go to another studio and create a new sound recording (I had a bad experience with this studio). The bass line that was made in the sound recording was not in the original composition I sent to the copyright office. They also created a beach feel in the song which I wasn’t expecting, but I kind of like it. If I use the bass line of the sound recording in a new recording as well as the beach feel at another studio, is that copyright infringement, or do I need to pay the producer in the previous studio even if I go to a new studio with completely new musicians? Thanks.

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      It’s your song, so technically, you can bring that arrangement to your new recording. The only thing that might be murky is if any of the musicians contributed parts that were so hooky as to constitute an essential new part of the song. BUT… that’s sorta intellectual property gray area. My non-lawyerly opinion is that it’s your song. If you liked what somebody did with the bass part and you paid them for the service of creating and recording a bass part, it now belongs to you.

      @ChrisRobley

  • http://niklasjblixt.com Niklas J. Blixt

    I lift my hat off and say, very well written! You guys managed to explain copyright at a level that it’s very easy to understad!

    And I’m sorry to say that I see, and talk to many young and talented musicians…or wait…to musicians at all ages that just ignores this or just don’t care. And then they cry about how “There’s no money in the music business” or “It’s to complicated, I just want to make music”. Too many songwriters, artists, etc. still thinks that the only way to make money it to make great songs, hope to get noticed by a big company who just pays them a bunch of money.

    I’m not saying that you’ll making a bunch of money just by knowing your rights. But it will damn sure set you better up for success.

    Great read!

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      Thanks. Thanks for reading. Glad you enjoyed.

      @ChrisRobley

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      Thanks. Thanks for reading. Glad you enjoyed.

      @ChrisRobley

    • ceoholla

      Even those of us that have not ignored these copyright rules/regulations have gotten their works allegedly stolen by multimillionaires/major corporations. Thus, unfortunately, your statement that it will set you up for success is unfortunately untrue. This is why we have joined together as a coalition of Independent/Artists intent to stop Hollywood from, allegedly, stealing In the Name of the Law (Summary Judgment). Here is our website, http://www.injustice4all.org and our Facebook page. Please like and share each, support the movement and help us stop them from destroying our careers, lives, hopes and dreams. http://www.injustice4all.org/about-the-documentary.html

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Haha. Thanks. We hope that as well! You take care too.

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Do you want to record and distribute them yourself? Or do you want other artists to perform your songs?

    @ChrisRobley

  • Don Diego

    You may want to check that info in #3. I’m not a copyright lawyer, but I worked in music publishing for quite a few years. The ‘poor man’s copyright’ notion has been around for a long time, but it’s problematic. Copyright lawyers advise that to successfully prove ownership in a (US) court of law one needs the federal registration – the certificate of copyright. I’ve enjoyed your articles, but I felt this one point needed some clarification. Keep up the good work. Thanks.

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      Thanks for weighing in. Yeah, I’ve always heard the “poor man’s copyright” method was questionable, and certainly would not give you standing to collect minimum guaranteed damages in the case of infringement (as you would if you had registered the copyright with LOC).

      @ChrisRobley

      • dvdaudio

        Hey Chris,

        There is a big disclaimer on http://www.copyright.gov website, basically stating that the “poor man’s” copyright is a popular myth with no basis under the law. I teach Music Business at the Conservatory of Recording Arts & Sciences, here in Tempe, Arizona; and we dispel this myth for our students. One CANNOT even go to court without a registration with the Copyright Office. It’s basically a waste of postage.

        Glen O’Hara

      • dvdaudio

        Hey Chris,

        There is a big disclaimer on http://www.copyright.gov website, basically stating that the “poor man’s” copyright is a popular myth with no basis under the law. I teach Music Business at the Conservatory of Recording Arts & Sciences, here in Tempe, Arizona; and we dispel this myth for our students. One CANNOT even go to court without a registration with the Copyright Office. It’s basically a waste of postage.

        Glen O’Hara

        • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

          Hi Glen,

          Thanks for weighing in. That’s kinda what I figured. Best to just register with LoC!

          @ChrisRobley

      • Christopher Bingham

        Yep – it’s the difference between “statutory” damages and having to prove damage. With the registration, all you have to prove is infringement and the law sets the amount. Otherwise you have to prove how much money they made – and that’s what you get.

      • Dar

        What about using a YouTube post as a poor man’s copyright. I have a lot of songs…that I would like to test first… is this a bad idea? It gets expensive to copyright each work that I may not want to ever put on an album…

        • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

          Yeah, I don’t think that would cut it. It’s best to register with the LoC so you’re guaranteed a minimum of damages in the case of infringement.

          @ChrisRobley

        • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

          Yeah, I don’t think that would cut it. It’s best to register with the LoC so you’re guaranteed a minimum of damages in the case of infringement.

          @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    You might consider seeking out a publishing deal. That way you’ll having someone working on your behalf to get your songs into other artists’ and producers’ hands. The downside is that you’ll be cutting someone else in on the royalties. The obvious up-side is that a publishing company will have connections and know-how, so it’s worth cutting them in on your royalties.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Doug Wood

    Kind of vague – I would have explained licensing a little better, considering so many musicians create cover-song videos and claim “fair use” when distributing those videos on their youtube and promotional dvds.

  • Doug Wood

    Kind of vague – I would have explained licensing a little better, considering so many musicians create cover-song videos and claim “fair use” when distributing those videos on their youtube and promotional dvds.

  • http://dehumanizer.org Ian / Nihil Quest

    Think about it again: without copyright law, music existed for thousands of years and not just as a hobby.

  • roxybeast

    That’s the most simple & well presented explanation I’ve ever heard of music copyrights.

    And in addition to being a musician, I’m also a lawyer, so that’s saying something ;)

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      Ha. Thanks!

      @ChrisRobley

  • Emmanuel

    Great article, although you should point out that this is for the U.S as there’s other rights that are not covered in the U.S copyright laws that are covered in other countries.

  • ceoholla

    This article gives you the very basics of Copyright Rules and Regulations; however, laws without enforcement are USELESS…FOR if the judicial system is failing to protect these rights, what is the sense of having such. Our groundbreaking documentary shows you, in the real world, how your copyrights, right now are essentially USELESS and how we allege Hollywood has, essentially been able to steal ANY AND EVERTYTHING DESIRED..IN THE NAME OF THE LAW…SUMMARY JUDGMENT! This is not only from my findings/research and personal experience, it has been statistically validated by a well known Beverly Hills attorney. Buy the Documentary, support the Movement to prevent the Death of Copyright! http://www.injustice4all.org

  • WebWeaver

    how would one copyright an album that has been released digitally but not physically? thanks!

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      It doesn’t matter how you distribute the music. The process is the same.

      @ChrisRobley

  • http://www.danielmarkfaller.com dmfaller

    what do you know about Mechanical royalties?

  • http://www.danielmarkfaller.com dmfaller

    what do you know about Mechanical royalties?

  • Robert Caleb Potter

    If you are a BMI or ASCAP member it doesn’t hurt to register the song with them as well. Costs nothing and gets added to your catalog.

  • Joel Fleischer

    Now for the $100,000 question: How much does it cost to register a song with the Feds?

    Great article, btw!

  • Vidar Karlsson

    Really good reading, but you didn’t mention performance rights. Aren’t there any rights for
    playing a song live or on the radio in the US. Here in Europe artist get lots
    of money from radio-playing of their songs, shops-owners have to pay for using music
    in their shop, and artist can send their concert’s set-lists to a copyright organization
    and the club-owners have to pay fees according to these set-lists.

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      Yes. Publishers and songwriters get paid for public performances (radio, live shows, restaurant playlists, etc.) here too.

      @ChrisRobley

  • Craig Einhorn

    When you say “permission” to record a song I’m confused. Nobody can contact Paul McCartney to ask permission to record Hey Jude, but there are thousands of versions out there. Do you mean pay for a mechanical license or ask permission? I paid for many mechanical licenses without ever meeting the artists of the tunes I’ve recorded.

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      You don’t have to ask permission directly from the artist or publisher, but by paying the mechanical licenses, your distribution of those tracks is permissible by law. Permission is granted so long as you’re meeting all the requirements for distributing cover songs. Basically, you just have to deal with Limelight, Harry Fox, or some similar intermediary.

      @ChrisRobley

  • cubist guy

    Thank you for this nuts and bolts discussion. If your video training series is as clear and concise as your “5 Points fo Copyright”, I’ll be a better musician for having accessed it.

  • http://MakeCreativityPay.com Leanne Regalla

    Clear explanation of a complex subject. Good job. And yes, you are right that the “poor man’s copyright” is essentially useless. If it goes to court, your songs must be registered with the copyright office.

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Well, how many songs do you have that haven’t been registered yet? Maybe you could just send them all in as a collection and stay quiet about the previous distribution dates. But I’m no lawyer, so it could also be best to consult with an attorney about this.

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Yes you can. You can register both the sound recording and the composition with a single application IF the copyright owner is exactly the same for both copyrights. Check out this page for details: http://copyright.gov/circs/circ56a.pdf

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Well, that’s probably correct (if the quote is long enough to be a recognizable passage from a song), but I think people let this sort of stuff slide all the time if something works it’s way deliberately into improvisations.

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    I’m not sure what they’re waiting for. If they want partial ownership, better for them to claim it now, right? Hmmm. Maybe get more… persistent. Send them an email every few weeks until you get a definitive yes or no.

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Yes indeed. Many songs are registered with a PRO that haven’t been registered with the Library of Congress.

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Looks like this is a good place to start: http://www.cipo.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/cipointernet-internetopic.nsf/eng/h_wr02281.html

    It explains the registration process in Canada.

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    You can purchase a license to distribute cover songs from Harry Fox Agency or Limelight.

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    You’d get paid all the publishing royalties, yes. The singer MAY qualify to receive some digital performance royalties through SoundExchange (but those aren’t technically publishing royalties). Also, the person who masters your album is just providing an engineering service. They get paid by you for that service, but don’t own any copyright on your material. You would own the master recording (and as such, should also register with SoundExchange).

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Yes. I forget what the exact cost is now, but you can register a number of songs at once as a single collection of tunes. Details are on the copyright.gov site.

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Yeah, I suppose lying on a government form isn’t the best route. Hmmm. Maybe you could just make some phone calls to lawyers and see if one of them will give some free advice for a minute or two. It happens!

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Nope. As a CD Baby Pro member, we’ll register you as a songwriter with ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, or SOCAN. But we don’t handle SoundExchange registration. It’s definitely worth signing up with them, though.

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Yes. That would allow you to distribute your own recorded version of the song.

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Wow. Some friends. Good that you’ve got a lawyer involved. I can see how they would want to be credited as producers, but if they had no material contribution to the lyrics or melody (besides asking that she do a bit more work on them), then they should not have ownership of the composition. I would also say that if your daughter paid them for their services, then SHE should own the master recording too. They were just doing some work-for-hire.

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Wow. Some friends. Good that you’ve got a lawyer involved. I can see how they would want to be credited as producers, but if they had no material contribution to the lyrics or melody (besides asking that she do a bit more work on them), then they should not have ownership of the composition. I would also say that if your daughter paid them for their services, then SHE should own the master recording too. They were just doing some work-for-hire.

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Wow. Some friends. Good that you’ve got a lawyer involved. I can see how they would want to be credited as producers, but if they had no material contribution to the lyrics or melody (besides asking that she do a bit more work on them), then they should not have ownership of the composition. I would also say that if your daughter paid them for their services, then SHE should own the master recording too. They were just doing some work-for-hire.

    @ChrisRobley

  • David J Caron

    Thanks for the info.. I do not play covers, I write my own music and lyrics, but how does copyright work with cover bands? I know plenty cover bands who simply decide to play a set of covers of well known tracks..are they infringing on copyright if they did not get permission from each covered song’s composition copyright holder ? Should they legally do so and what is legally possible in terms of penalties, if they do not ?

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      A band can perform whatever song they want live. The venue is normally responsible for paying performance royalties to ASCAP, BMI, etc. — who then pay the songwriter/publisher. But a band WOULD be responsible for paying mechanical royalties if they decided to distribute a recording of a cover song.

      @ChrisRobley

      • David J Caron

        Thanks Christopher, I thought that was the case.. but it doesn’t seem to fit with the 6 exclusive rights for a copyright holder. Why should there really be a different right/legislation between a live performance and a recorded one, when what is being heard can be the same thing ? I know you don’t make the rules though ! :)..

        • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

          Haha. Yeah, I didn’t make the rules. Though that’d be fun to do,… just rewrite copyright law for everyone.

          Not sure why there’s the distinction between public performance rights and mechanical rights when it comes to the publisher/songwriter being able to control what gets played by whom and where, but if it weren’t for that leniency, cover bands would be out of business quick!

          @ChrisRobley