Copyright is a topic featured heavily in creative industries. As it relates to music creators, knowledge of copyright laws is necessary if you are to navigate the music industry and benefit from it properly. One of the concerns many songwriters and musicians have, especially when just starting out, is who owns what.
You obviously own all rights to your work if you are the only one responsible for creating all lyrics and music for your songs. But in today’s music environment, there is more collaboration among creators than ever. From multiple songwriters co-writing the lyrics to producers, and even engineers, adding to the melody and making other tweaks to a song, a single piece of music could have multiple people claiming different fractions of its ownership. And relying on people to be accurate or honest in their dealings is a gamble you probably don’t want to take.
On top of that is the issue of borrowing from other musical works. For example, maybe you heard a to-die-for riff in a 1980 Beach Boys song and feel it could do wonders in a track you are working on. Or maybe you are an artist who wants to do a cover version of a popular song that you really like. How do you acquire copyright in any of these cases? Read on for answers on everything you need to know about copyrighting your music or getting permission from copyright owners.
If you write songs or create music compositions, the first thing you should know is that copyright ownership is automatic. This means the very instant you record a piece of original music (lyrics, chord progression, etc.) in a tangible form, it is automatically copyright-protected. Tangible form simply means it has been recorded, whether on hard copy, soft copy, or audio format. You do not need to tell anyone, create a special notice, or pay any money to confirm that you are the copyright holder. It does not matter if you go ahead and publish your work on SoundCloud or have it stored on your hard drive or in an old notebook. You literally do not need to do anything else to receive protection under copyright law.
Okay, so why is there a U.S. Copyright Office and why are you encouraged to register your work with it by paying a fee? While this step is not necessary, it is considered good practice if you want to protect yourself legally in the future. This specific step puts it on record that you are the definite owner and forms a legal safety net.
For starters, you can’t file a lawsuit against someone who you believe to have infringed on your work unless you had formally registered that creation. In the past, there have been several cases where creators found this out the hard way.
Moreover, registering your music with the Copyright Office lets others know you are the rights holder of a piece of work. This allows other creators who may be interested in getting a license to use your work, to know who to contact and who to pay for usage. This helps them avoid copyright infringement lawsuits in the process.
If there are several owners (as in the case of multiple collaborators on a single song), copyright registration will make note of how much of the project you own, whether it is as small as 1% or as much as 99%.
Another good reason to register your music is that, in a case where there is copyright infringement on your work, registering your copyright makes it possible for you to claim statutory damages and legal fees. Statutory damages are easier to prove than actual damages and can secure remuneration of up to $150,000. Attorney fees in a copyright infringement case can cost a pretty penny as well; you may want to reclaim those funds if you decide to sue someone. You can only claim for this if the work was registered prior to an incident of copyright infringement.
Copyright protection is a pretty simple process. This can be achieved by visiting the U.S. Copyright Office website and completing the application process. A single application costs $35, while standard application costs $55. In addition, there are a number of third party companies that can do the application on your behalf. These third parties typically charge $100, in addition to the $35 or $55 application fee. Whichever route you choose, you will get a certificate confirming that you are the owner of the work.
It was often believed to be standard practice for creators to mail the work to themselves as a way to prove ownership. Referred to as “poor man’s copyright,” this is actually a useless step because it is not recognized under U.S. copyright laws. The one recommended way to put yourself in a position for legal protection is to register your work with the Copyright Office.
For one reason or another, you may want to include a piece of existing music into a song you are working on. Or there is a song you like that you want to put your own spin on with a cover version. Whatever the case, copyright law requires that you get permission before going ahead with the project. And, no, it does not matter if you plan to earn money from it or not. You can still be sued by a rights holder even if you have not earned a cent from infringing on their copyright.
So, how do you go about acquiring permission? The first step is finding out if you need permission in the first place. Works that are in the public domain, for instance, are free to be re-recorded without any need to gain permission. Every year, a bunch of songs and other creative works are released from copyright protection and placed in the public domain, so if the song you have your eye on is on that list, you can simply get to work.
Another reason you may not need to ask for permission is if your reason for copying a work falls under the “fair use” provision. If you want to use a part of a song in a music review or YouTube commentary video, for example, you could legally do so without infringing on someone’s copyright ownership. This is fairly common on YouTube, but there is often a thin line that must not be crossed. Familiarizing yourself with what passes as fair use is important if this is what you are after.
In most other cases such as licensing a piece of music or creating a cover version, you will need to get permission from the rights holder in order to proceed. Here are the steps:
Knowing how to go about acquiring copyright protection or permission is important knowledge for any music creator or artist to have, especially as it relates to how money is made in music. Understandably, it is a complex topic. If in doubt about what to do next, it is a good idea to get in touch with your lawyer, PRO, copyright office, or other relevant professional for guidance.