Copyright law. Yes I can feel your eyes start to lower a little bit at the thought of the topic, but it is crucial for artists to have a grasp of at least the basic concepts, why it is important and how to work within it at a very macro level. You may think this is something for a lawyer, manager or somebody else on your team, but knowing a little bit about everything is always a good idea, keeps you in the conversation and helps prevent people from taking advantage of you since there are too many predators in the music business. As Wu-Tang said, “Protect Ya Neck.” Do that with knowledge.
Obviously laws are different from country to country, from continent to continent. Different countries have different traditions when it comes to law so what is said in this article may be somewhat similar to what happens in your country, but there will be marked and very important differences as well. For very specific questions about law and before you do anything concrete with your music and the law, consult a lawyer. Music copyright law has been written over decades and has been very slow to keep up with rapidly changing technologies from television to radio to the internet, so some aspects of certain laws can be lacking or even clash.
There are two types of recordings – the sound recording / master recording and the musical composition. You have probably heard of these, notably if you have been following various lawsuits pertaining to streaming services. The sound recording / master is the “fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds.” It is the recording of the performance of that underlying composition.
The musical composition relates to the underlying music of that song. This can be registered as a performance art, notated copy like sheet music or in CD, vinyl or cassette.
This is confusing because we equate many artists of doing the same thing, but classically according to the law these were two different categories.
So what are some basic points of music copyright law? One very important thing to know is that once you create an original piece of music and release it, the copyright is automatically “created,” meaning it is fixed for the first time.
Though once it is “created” that may not be enough if you want complete legal protection. It is smart to register your song with the US Copyright Office, which will give you the power to enforce your claim in court, if you need to sue or get sued by Marvin Gaye’s family.
To file for a copyright, go to copyright.gov and fill out the forms on their website. Make sure you know what you are registering and have as much music to register as possible because it is a flat fee to register multiple songs. This will save you money, time and paperwork in the long run.
Beyond this, there are some other important things to note about music copyright. When looking up music copyright on artist forums and around the web, you may notice an idea called “poor man’s copyright.” It is the idea that you mail yourself a copy of your music and this somehow copyrights the song at that date. There is no evidence this works and can still leave you unprotected. Just like in most things in life, you get what you pay for.
You can also protect your unreleased songs too if you are afraid of your music being stolen by an estranged collaborator or it is something you believe will be that big of a game changer. It could also be an option if you know it won’t be released for quite some time and don’t want those ideas being used elsewhere.
We touched on this a little bit, but copyrighting your music can seem like a bit of an unnecessary chore and cost, notably if you create a lot of music. However it is important. It can protect you against frivolous lawsuits and gives you much better legal cover when attempting to protect your own intellectual property. It can be expensive, but worth it in the end, especially when you are planning a long career where not everything will go as planned.