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Artist Advice Column: Music Copyright 101 Pt. 2

Music copyright doesn't have to be too scary. Let's make it simple.
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Earlier in the month we got into the some of the basics of music copyright law. It is an incredibly complex topic that can veer into many different directions, so make sure you consult with a lawyer before making any official decisions are made. We are already went over some basics of copyright and how to register your music with the copyright office. Now it is time to get into more advantages, problems that may arise when trying to navigate copyright and more.

It doesn’t really make much sense to not copyright your work – but there are some distinct advantages to doing so. Your work is generally copyrighted for 70 years after the death of the final author. So if there are 10 co-writers on that song, the 70 years starts when the last person dies. Team up with some young people to make sure the copyright stays in you family for a long time. There are specific rules for music made with corporations or LLCs, which will expire 95-120 years after the work is created.

Another advantage is that you have better legal coverage if you are suing someone or getting sued. Legal battles may seem like they are for wealthy musicians, but if someone rips you off big or if you have a falling out with a member of your team, being protected is always a good idea.

Music copyright is complicated and can raise many problems for artists. When do you have right to use a song, remix, or cover it?

For producers, remixing and bootlegging is a necessary part of the job. It is important to developing the craft and also creating new, innovative reworks of the original song. These all won’t necessarily be done through official channels like a label commissioned remix. With more streaming and discovery services getting stricter on copyright, it can be tough to share your unofficial remix to the world. They own the recording and have final say in how it is distributed.

There are a few solutions. Create a separate account that will be used just for remixes so to not jeopardize your other main accounts. This can be a fresh SoundCloud, YouTube account or any other place that allows you to upload your own content yourself without a distributor middleman.

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Another solution is to reach out to the artist / label with your work and see if they will either sign it or tacitly accept the work and let you release your remix without a takedown. This is still risky because attitudes can change and copyright ID tech is still not great.

Covers have many of the same rules as well. If you are directly covering the original song, then beware of copyright strikes, though many artists and labels are friendly to those types of covers if you don’t monetize it.

With unofficial remixes, bootlegs and covers, you will have to accept that you can’t make money from the recording through streaming or sales. That doesn’t mean you can’t perform them live or leverage those works to gain a fanbase that you can then use for official releases. Keeping some of these just for the live venue can freshen up your show and be a nice surprise for fans that might record and share the moment online.

Sampling is another animal that there are some misconceptions about. If you sample somebody’s work, then you have to credit and clear it for an official release. This kills countless releases each year because the owner of that sample won’t let you use it or demands too high of a fee. That is the business you just have to try and navigate. The publisher will likely ask for an upfront fee and then a percentage after that. If you do try and clear the sample, try and negotiate the fee to as low as you can.

What constitutes a sample is a constantly moving target. It is pretty clear if you sample a direct portion of a song, a recognizable melody, bass line or hook, however it can get murky in between. Is that guitar riff sampled from another song? Does that melody sound too similar to another song? Even if you didn’t listen to the “sampled” song, there can be issues with copyright. This often leads to artists being credited on a song when they had nothing to do with it because the maker of the new track is afraid of a lawsuit.

It doesn’t help that many of the laws that govern music copyright in the United States and worldwide are murky. The laws are either archaic – from the pre-internet age – or seem to change all the time with new court judgments.

As we have seen with recent lawsuits surrounding “Uptown Funk” and “Blurred Lines,” where there might be a small similarity between a past song, there is potential for a lawsuit. Then the when dealing with the justice system, who has the better lawyers and most money can be the determining factor since many judges and jurors likely won’t understand the minutia of music copyright, all eras of music and most importantly, music theory. Settling is sometimes the only option to avoid costly, protracted suits.

Music copyright is difficult to get a grasp on and overwhelming, but that does mean you should ignore it. 

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