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Copyright Resources

Defining Copyright

Copyright refers to a legal device that provides the author of a piece of music, art, or literature, or any type of original work that conveys new information and ideas, the right to control how the work is used. Copyright ensures the author of four basic protections: the right to make and distribute copies of the work, the right to sell copies of the work, the right to prepare new works based on the protected work, and the right to perform the protecting work. Any expression that is original, tangible, and officially recorded may be copyrighted. According to the United States Copyright Office, the ability to copyright a work depends upon the work’s “fixation,” “originality,” and “creativity.”


Copyright Law and Musical Composition

The copyright law of the United States ensures copyright protection in “musical works, including any accompanying words,” that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Musical works comprise both original compositions and original arrangements or other new versions of ear­lier compositions to which new copyrightable authorship has been added. It is important to note that copyright in music includes the right to make and distribute the first sound recording. Others are permitted to make duplicate sound recordings, provided they have compensated the copyright owner under the licensing provision of the law. For example, in order to release a cover version of a song, a musician must pay the government set-rate for use of the song. Known as mechanical rights, the payment authorizes the musician to use the music in its own sound recording or master. Cover songs, then, may be released on CDs or digital downloads. The right to make a cover song does not extend to film soundtracks, video games or other audiovisual works. For these uses, a license must be obtained from the copyright holder.


Registration and Protection

Copyright protection guarantees automatic protection when the piece of music is first created. Creation occurs when the music and lyrics have been set down on paper, recorded, or stored on a computer. The copyright in the composition is different from the copyright in the sound recording, which can be thought of as the master — the recorded performance of the composition. When registering a newly published song, the musician should be sure to protect the copyright in the composition separately from the copyright in the sound recording.

Though copyright protection begins automatically upon creation, individuals must register with the United States Copyright Office in order to further protect the copyright. In order for musicians to sue and claim damages, creators must own a copyright registered with the Copyright Office. An application for copyright registration contains a completed application form, a nonre­fundable filing fee, and a nonreturnable “deposit”– a copy or copies of the work being registered and “deposited” with the Copyright Office. The cost of filing is $35.00 for electronic filing or $45.00 for paper filing. Paper filing takes the Copyright Office significantly longer to complete.

Once the work is registered, it is important to note that a musical piece is granted protection for more than a lifetime. For musical artist, copyright protection includes safeguarding against musical theft, such as piracy, counterfeiting, and bootlegging. For published works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection extends for 70 years beyond the life of the author. If there are multiple authors, the protection typically extends 70 year beyond the death of the last surviving author. Any musical work produced or created for corporations is considered “work for hire,” and the corporations or companies are the owners of the copyright for 95 years from its first publication or for 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. It is important to note that there is next to no value in registering a composition until it has been published, which means selling or distributing copies of the song to the public. Posting a new recording or video to YouTube constitutes publication. Live performance of a song, however, does not publish the song.


Current Issues

The advent of the Internet and the development of technology have allowed for more and more artists to incorporate digital sampling in their work. Digital sampling occurs when a musical artist to appropriate sound from a previously recorded work and incorporates it into a new work. Sampling has challenged the existing framework of copyright law. While only eight of the top 100 albums contained sampling 10 years ago, nearly one third of the current Billboard 100 albums use sampling as an artistic tool, due in large part to the increased popularity of rap music, in which artists rely heavily upon sampling in their songs. Currently, hip hop, dance, and other experimental artists have chosen the sampler as their primary “creative” instrument. Numerous Supreme Court cases have abounded over the years. In a landmark decision, United States v. Taxe, the court ruled that re-recording an entire song while changing only some frequencies and tones violates copyright law. In addition, infringement occurs even if the re-recorder changes the original music as long as the original work can be recognized in the final performance.


Additional Resources

American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers- The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) is a membership association of more than 427,000 U.S. composers, songwriters, lyricists, and music publishers.

Broadcast Music Incorporated- Formed in 1939 as a non-profit performing rights organization, Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) was the first to offer representation to songwriters of blues, country, jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, and folk.

Copyright Issues for Music Makers -This article seeks introduces the basic concepts of copyright law, outlines how best to use them to your advantage, and then explain how the law may be enforced in practice.

Copyright Tutorial for Musicians- This tutorial covers a wide range of topics dealing with copyright law for musical artists.

Creative Commons.org- Creative Commons is an organization that develops, supports, and stewards legal and technical infrastructure in order to foster digital creativity, sharing, and innovation. This organization utilizes a set of copyright licenses and tools that create a balance inside the traditional “all rights kept back” setting that copyright law creates.

Famous Copyright Infringement Plagiarism Cases in Music- This website contains information on several copyright infringement court cases, including ones involving Credence Clearwater Revival, Vanilla Ice, and Michael Bolton.

National Association for Music Education- This portion of the National Association of Music Education offers information on licensing, performance rights, copyright law, and answers questions related to copyright law for musicians.

SEASAC- SESAC, Inc. is a performing rights organization with headquarters in Nashville and offices in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, and London.

Search Copyright Information- This website contains works registered and documents recorded by the United States Copyright Office since January 1, 1978.

Legal Reference Books- This list contains numerous legal texts and reference books covering a wide range of copyright information concerning musicians and producers.