5 more things every musician should know about copyright

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What is a Musical Copyright?[This post was written by guest contributor Dave Kusek of The New Artist Model.]

As we talked about in the last article, copyright is extremely important for musicians. It is the very foundation on which your career is built, so it makes sense to at least understand the basics. As you’ll see in this article, a general understanding of copyright law can even help you bring in more income.

Here’s 5 more points about copyright every musician should understand 

1. Copyright Duration

So once you have copyright protection for your work, how long does it actually last? In the US, copyright protection lasts the life of the creator plus 70 years. If you wrote the song with your band or another musician, copyright protection will last 70 years past the death of the last surviving owner. After the death of the writers, the song will pass to their heirs who will be able to continue to financially benefit. For a work for hire, copyright duration lasts 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

After copyright protection has expired the song falls into the public domain. This is just a fancy word which means anyone can use your music for free. Anyone can cover and sell your song, sample it, perform it, and arrange it without paying you a cent or even asking permission. Of course, you’ll be 70 years dead, so it won’t matter to you too much. Music, by nature, builds on what came before, so an infinite copyright protection would hinder new creators.

2. Work for Hire

It is important to note that very few musical works actually qualify as a work for hire. Record labels like to throw this term around to get the upper hand of a deal or to avoid reversion rights which we’ll talk about later in this article.

In order to qualify as a work for hire, a song must be written by an employee within the scope of employment. Typically, this means the employer is directly supervising the creation. If a song is not supervised, which is the case for most music, it must be commissioned, created under a written agreement, and be used for either an audiovisual work (movie, video, TV show), a collective work, a compilation, a translation, or a supplementary work. Don’t worry too much about the last point. In most instances, you’d only have to deal with the audiovisual work.

With these points in mind, it is pretty much impossible for a work created under a record or publishing contract to qualify as a work for hire.

3. Mechanicals

The mechanical license is one of those terms thrown around a lot in the music industry. Basically, it is a license that grants the right to make copies of a song and distribute those copies to the public. In the US, mechanical licenses are compulsory, meaning that as long as your song has been commercially released and the user pays you the required 9.1¢ per copy, you are required by law to grant the license. If your song has not been released to the public and someone wants to record it, you can charge whatever you want, or even deny them. This is called the right to first use.

This may seem scary, but it actually simplifies everything. Record labels use mechanical licenses to distribute your music and other bands use them to make cover songs. The Harry Fox Agency makes obtaining a mechanical license for cover songs really easy. In the end, the more people out there covering your song, the better. You’ll get more money and reach new audiences.

4. PROs

PROs (or Performing Rights Organizations) help simplify the collection and distribution of performance royalties. In the US, ASCAP, SESAC, and BMI collect money from venues, radio stations, television networks, stores, restaurants, and anywhere else that plays live music, and distributes that money to the songwriters. If you’re not already, register with a PRO so you don’t miss out on income. There isn’t too much differentiation between the three companies, so it doesn’t matter which you sign up with. However, SESAC requires an invitation to join.

Sound Exchange does the same thing for sound recording owners. Keep in mind though, that sound recording owners only get paid for public performances via digital transmission (think internet radio and streaming). Composition owners, on the other hand, get paid when their music is performed on traditional radio, internet radio, streaming sites, TV, and public places. This is one of those nonsensical aspects of US copyright law still left over from the days when radio had all the power.

5. Copyright Reversion

If you transferred your rights to a publishing or record company, it’s not the end! If your copyrights were transferred after 1978, you can actually reclaim them 35 years later. This means that you could renegotiate a more favorable deal, go to a different company, or even choose to hold on to your rights yourself. Keep in mind though, that publishing and record companies have more connections and resources to monetize your music. There are no reversion rights for works for hire.

The New Artist Model is an online music business school for independent musicians, performers, recording artists, producers, managers and songwriters. Our classes teach essential music business and marketing skills that will take you from creativity to commerce while maximizing your chances for success. Get 5 free lessons from the New Artist Model online courses when you sign up for our free video training series.



For more information about music publishing, publishing rights, and how you can earn and collect more publishing royalties, check out our FREE guide:

Guide: Make More Money From Your Music


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  • lifebohemia

    If you go into a studio and pay up front and hire one of their producers or anyone outside of your band, I would highly recommend asking those involved to sign a for hire agreement or some kind of negotiated agreement before any money is paid or before you set foot in the studio, and especially before any recording button is hit. You can do this using PDFZen, which I learned about through my lawyer. Because I was a newbie and unaware of how copyright works and went into an unscrupulous studio, the studio I recorded in now owns 66% of the sound recording I created with the two other producers. I consulted a Harvard entertainment lawyer and there is nothing I can do. Luckily, I had a composition copyright with the U.S. Copyright office. And if I hadn’t at least put the song into some physical format beforehand, I really would have been screwed. And read The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing. It’ll really open your eyes to what can happen. And the intro by Tom Petty is hilarious, the way he talks about the shysters and the sharks.

  • Great words of warning. Sorry you got burned, though. Will check out that Tom Petty intro.