7 Things Musicians Should Know About Copyright Law

Posted on 08/09/2010
In Intellectual Property



musician copyright lawCopyright law knowledge is essential for all musicians and songwriters.

In a world of sampling and sharing, musicians should learn copyright law basics to protect their intellectual property — or someone else could be taking credit for their work.

Key Copyright Points Musicians Should Know

Knowing how copyright law works can help protect musicians’ intellectual property. Here are some key points regarding copyright law that could be useful in protecting musicians’ livelihood:

1) As soon as you create something, it can be copyrighted.

If an idea for a song is floating around in your head, take some action! According to the US Copyright Office, copyright protection begins as soon as musicians record an opening riff or put lyrics down on paper. Copyright exists to protect works “in a tangible form.”

2) Copyright protection means rights for the creators.

Establishing copyright protection for songs affords musicians some rights in how the songs are used. Some of these rights include:

  • The right to reproduce the song in any context.
  • The right to perform the work in public venues of any size.
  • The right to arrange, adapt or change the work in any way.
  • The right to sell or distribute the work.
  • The right to license or allow others to do any of the above options.

3) Copyright protection exceeds your life span.

While copyright protection begins as soon as the song is created, it ends 70 years after the creator’s death. In the case of multiple musicians responsible for a song’s creation, copyright protection ends 70 years after the last member of the band or ensemble dies.

Songs by unknown musicians or songs by musicians for hire have a copyright protection term of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is the shorter amount of time.

After copyright protection expires, songs go into the public domain. The rights listed above are no longer applicable and anyone can do what they wish with the songs.

4) Copyright protection can be transferred.

Copyright, like other things you own, can be bought and sold.

Copyright transfers are generally made by drawing up a contract. A copyright transfer doesn’t require a contract or any kind of written record to be valid, but creating a contract can be legally beneficial — it may make your copyright transfer safe from a third party.

5) Recordings and compositions are usually copyrighted separately.

The US Copyright Office has deemed that compositions are a different work than sound recordings. Musicians should realize the difference and remember to obtain copyright protection for both.

6) Your work doesn’t have to be published to be copyrighted.

Songs and other original works don’t have to be well-known or even published at all to be protected by copyright law.

7) Musicians should register with the US Copyright Office to protect their work.

While copyright is formed when you create your work, it would be difficult to defend yourself if someone stole your idea. In order to protect yourself and your intellectual property in court, you need to register with the US Copyright Office.

A registered copyright allows musicians and other artists and creators to sue anyone who may infringe upon their creation, claim damages and control how their work is used and distributed. Registering a copyright is a small step that could help musicians protect their big ideas.


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