Copyright Basics for Recording Artists: Protect Your Music

Copyright Basics for Recording Artists | IXiiV RecordsCopyright law is an integral and often controversial part of the music business. It is the basis for almost every deal that involves recording, touring, publishing, and more. Copyright law determines not only who owns the music, but also, most importantly, it determines who receives royalties every time the music is licensed, recorded, sold, and/or performed. Record executives, producers, songwriters, publishers, and recording artists are all affected by the terms and rates set by the U.S. Copyright Office.

As a recording artist, your music is your biggest asset. Do not allow yourself to be taken advantage of by someone stealing, misusing, or profiting from your songs. Before you decide to do anything with the music you’ve spent time (and probably money) writing and recording, educate yourself on copyright law so you can exploit and generate income from your music. This post serves as an introduction that will help you understand the basics. As music consultants, Suz and I are frequently asked the following questions below. After reading, I encourage you to explore the U.S. Copyright Office’s website and other online resources to learn more. My next post will delve deeper into royalty payments and how artists can make money from their copyrighted work.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of legal protection that grants a set of exclusive rights to the creator of original works of authorship.

What can be protected by copyright?

Literary, musical, visual, dramatic, and other intellectual works that are fixed in a tangible form of expression can be copyrighted. Both published and unpublished works can be protected.

As a musician, what can I copyright?

Depending on your whether or not you are considered an author, you can copyright your sound recordings, lyrics, and sheet music/musical notation. You might also be able to copyright your album artwork, music videos, and other original creative works including works displayed on your website.

What about my stage/band name and logo?

Words, phrases, designs, and symbols, cannot be copyrighted, however, they can be trademarked.

Who can claim copyright protection?

Only the author or those who have been assigned/transferred rights from the author can rightfully claim copyright. In the case of works for hire, the employer not the employee is considered the author.

What are the exclusive rights?

The 1976 Copyright Act gives copyright holders the following five exclusive rights:

  1. The right to reproduce the work in copies (i.e. you can make physical or digital copies of your music)
  2. The right to create derivative works of the original work (i.e. you can change the arrangement or composition of your original work to create new music)
  3. The right to sell, lease, or rent copies of the work to the public
  4. The right to perform the work publicly
  5. The right to display the work publicly

In 1995, the Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act added one more right that is especially important for musicians:

  1. The right to perform a sound recording by means of digital audio transmission

Are there any limitations or exceptions to these rights?

Yes, under the Fair Use doctrine, some uses of your copyrighted material are allowed without your permission. For example, parodies can be made without your consent. This means that Weird Al can make a parody of one of your songs without needing your approval (though he personally makes it a policy to ask for permission regardless).

What if I want to use someone else’s music?

If you want to sample copyrighted music, you must get permission directly from the copyright owner(s). Keep in mind that a song will often have two copyright owners– one owns the master sound recording (usually the record label) and the other owns the musical composition (usually a publisher). You will need clearance from both. In order to determine how much to charge you for using their music, they will want to know how much is being sampled, so it makes sense to record the song first before seeking clearance. To find out who the copyright owners are and how to contact them, you can perform an online search on the Copyright Office’s website.

There is one highly debated exception to this rule. Free albums such as mixtapes are generally considered fair use and thus do not need clearance for samples. Many hip-hop artists release mixtapes that include previously released tracks from other artists. Under most circumstances, these artists will not need permission from the copyright owners as long as the mixtapes are not sold for profit. If you are ever unsure whether you need permission, consult an attorney.

When does copyright protection begin?

Technically, copyright protection begins the moment you create something original in a tangible form. So as soon as you write your lyrics down, record your song onto a CD or computer, or compose sheet music, your work is automatically protected.

How long does copyright protection last?

For most works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. Works made for hire are protected for 95 years from the year of its first publication or 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.

If protection is automatic, why should I register my work?

Though registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is not required to receive copyright protection, it does provide several advantages to the copyright owner. First, registration establishes a public record of the copyright claim. This record shows who the copyright owner is, the dates of creation and publication, and other important facts about the work. Without this public record, others will not know who to contact in order to license or sample your music. Additionally, registration gives you the power to legally stop unauthorized uses of your work. We’ve all heard scandals involving copyright infringement. Without registering your work first, you cannot file an infringement suit if someone violates your copyright. Finally, registration allows you to join and earn royalties from a performing rights organization like ASCAP or BMI.

When should I register my work?

We recommend registering your work with the Copyright Office whenever it is about to leave your control, published or unpublished (i.e. before you release your album or send your music to be mastered). It is not necessary to register work that will not be seen or heard by others (i.e. songs that haven’t been recorded yet).

How much does it cost to file a copyright registration?

If submitted electronically to the Copyright Office, a basic registration is $35. Check here for other fees.

I’m ready to register my music. How do I get started?

The Boss Ladies of IXiiV are experienced in copyright filing and can help you get your sound recordings, sheet music, lyrics, and other works copyrighted. We understand the intricacies of the U.S. Copyright Office’s online filing system and will make sure that the proper forms are used and filled out correctly. Contact us today to get the process started!

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