What Every Musician Needs to Know About Copyrights
Sometimes, for musicians, it’s easy for legal issues to be overlooked—but that doesn’t make them any less important. In fact, copyright issues can present an enormous hurdle to your plans for your work, so it’s important to be aware of the facts from the beginning.
If a copyright is automatic, why should I register a copyright for my music?
Copyright law states that simply by virtue of creating music, the owner holds the copyright to that music. However, there are two main reasons it is in a musician’s best interest to officially register their copyright.
- Registration creates a public record of the copyright, which includes optional contact information. This makes it simple for anyone to contact the copyright holder with any offers to purchase licensing rights to the music. Without this record, you could miss out on potential offers—not the best way for a musician to make a living.
- If someone does use your music improperly—selling it on their website without your permission, for example—you’ll need to file a copyright registration in order to bring legal action. This comes straight from the USCO’s “Copyright Basics” circular: “Before an infringement suit may be filed in court, registration is necessary for works of U.S. origin.”
If I write music, but my partner writes lyrics, who owns the copyright?
Without registering the copyright, the authors of a piece of music or a sound recording automatically own the copyright to that music or recording. It is when you register your copyright with the US Copyright Office that you can indicate whoever you like to act as the owner or owners: you, your writing partner, both of you, or even a third party (your recording studio or manager, for example).
1. Author Contribution
The process works like this: You’ll be asked, during your copyright registration, to specify each listed author’s contribution. This is where you’ll specify that you are responsible for the music, your partner is responsible for the lyrics, and if you like you can mention the person responsible for production, the sound recording, and any other aspects of the music.
2. Copyright Ownership
Then, you’ll be asked to specify the owner or owners. You can list any of the authors that you’d like; if you’ve mentioned your producer as the “author” in charge of production, you may list him or her as an owner, or you may not—it’s completely up to you and the agreement you had with your producer.
If you would like to add your recording studio (or some other third party not listed as author) as an owner as well, this is no problem; you’ll simply need to indicate that there is a written agreement to this effect between that third party and the actual authors. (And, of course, that written agreement—frequently in the form of a Copyright Assignment Form—must exist and be kept in your records.)
Can our official copyright registration list my band name instead of the individual members of the band?
Of course; copyrights can be owned by organizations or individuals. There are two ways to do this:
If you’ve listed the band name as the author of the material (as opposed to listing the individual authors themselves), simply list that same band name as the owner of the material.
- If you’ve listed the individual band members as owners of the music, as in the above example regarding third parties, you’ll need to indicate that you have a written agreement between the authors and the organization listed as owner.
Both of these cases presuppose that all parties involved have written documentation indicating the individual band members and the band name.
Can we release a CD with cover material, as long as we disclaim any copyright ownership?
This is a tricky one. In fact, a cover song is legally considered a derivative work (one that is based on another copyrighted work), and one of the exclusive rights of a copyright holder is to create (or allow others to create) derivative works. Legally, you should obtain permission from the copyright owner before proceeding with your cover version.
This is such a prevalent issue in the music community that many musicians don’t realize there is a legal issue with cover material at all. However, consider a few factors. One, nowhere in copyright law does it mention that attributing authorship to the proper copyright owner negates the requirement to ask for permission (although this is true of Creative Commons licenses). And two, think of this parallel—most people understand that it would be copyright infringement to write a Harry Potter sequel without permission from JK Rowling, so why would a song be any different?
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