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Understanding Music Copyright: A Guide for Independent Musicians

music copyright

Photo credit: Markus Winkler

We’ve already seen so many court cases over copyright infringement. Sometimes, one artist has a similar idea to another artist and inadvertently makes a song that sounds similar. And sometimes it may be on purpose, who knows. The point is, you need to protect yourself. So let’s talk music copyright.

(Note: I am not a lawyer or copyright expert and this is not legal advice. I’m a fellow indie musician who did a bunch of research so you don’t have to. I’ve linked to all my sources within the article).

What Does Copyrighting Your Music Do?

Let’s ask the United States Copyright Office what copyrighting your music does.

“As the owner of your music,” they write, “copyright gives you the right to make and sell copies, distribute those copies, make new works based on your work, and…publicly perform or display the work.”

In other words, copyrighting your music provides legal protection for your creative work. Specifically, here’s what a copyright gives you…

Exclusive Rights. Copyright grants you, as the creator or copyright holder, exclusive rights to your musical work. This means you’re the only one who is allowed to reproduce, distribute, perform, and display your music. And this applies internationally.

Legal Recognition and Ownership. A copyright gives you legal and public evidence that you’re the rightful owner of the music. You’ll need this in case there are legal disputes.

Prevention of Unauthorized Use. A copyright acts as a deterrent against unauthorized use of your music. No one is allowed to use, reproduce, or distribute your work without your permission.

Protection Against Infringement. If someone has the audacity to use your music without your permission, a copyright lets you to take legal action against them for copyright infringement. This may involve seeking damages or stopping the unauthorized use of your work.

Ability to License. With a copyright, you’re allowed to license your music to others. This includes allowing your music to be used in films, commercials, TV shows, and video games.

Posthumous Protection. Copyright protection lasts for a specific duration, usually for the life of the creator plus a certain number of years (70 years in many jurisdictions). During this time, you or whoever controls your estate has control over how your music is used.

Resale and Transfer Rights. A copyright allows you to sell or transfer your copyright to others.

What’s a “Poor Man’s Copyright”?

A “poor man’s copyright” is when you try to establish a form of copyright protection for your music without officially registering it with the copyright office.

The idea behind it is to create a dated record of the music’s existence and authorship, using a low-cost and informal method. Usually, this involves mailing a CD of your music to yourself so it’s stamped and dated by the USPS, and then you keep the package sealed and stored away just in case.

To be clear, this is not a legally recognized alternative to official copyright registration.

The U.S. Copyright Office does say “…your work is protected by copyright from the moment it is fixed…”. However, registering an actual copyright gives you more benefits and overall more reliable protection.

Musical Composition vs. Sound Recording

When you record a song, you’re very often generating two distinct copyright-protected entities: a musical work and a sound recording. When you register a copyright, you need to copyright both the musical work and the sound recording.

The sound recording refers to the actual recording of a song, which includes the music, lyrics, or any other content recorded onto a CD or a digital track.

The musical work refers to the fundamental composition of a song, which includes the underlying music and any accompanying lyrics. This type of work is typically owned by a songwriter or composer.

How To Copyright Your Music

The two main benefits mentioned by the U.S. Copyright Office are “access to federal courts in the case of infringement” and having “a public record of your ownership.” So once you’re ready to copyright your music, here are the ways you can do that:

  1. Standard Application (register an individual sound recording or musical work)
  2. Group Registration of Unpublished Works (register up to 10 unpublished works by the same author)
  3. Group Registration of Works on an Album of Music (register up to 20 musical works or twenty sound recordings by the same author)

What To Do If Someone Infringes On Your Copyright

If someone infringes on your music copyright, here’s what you can do to address the situation…

  1. Gather Evidence: Collect evidence of the infringement, including any relevant dates, communications, or instances of unauthorized use. Make sure you have a record of your copyright registration.
  2. Contact the Infringing Party: Send a cease and desist letter. Clearly state your ownership of the copyrighted music, describe the infringement, and demand that the infringing party cease using your music immediately. Include evidence of your ownership and give them a reasonable deadline for them to comply.
  3. Use Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) Takedown: If the infringement happens online, you can submit a DMCA takedown notice to the website hosting the illegally used music. Most online platforms have procedures to do this, so follow the website’s instructions.
  4. Seek Legal Advice: If the infringing party does not comply, you can explore your legal options. So consult with an intellectual property attorney to figure out if you have a strong enough case. You may be able to solve the issue through mediation rather than filing a lawsuit, which would be much more affordable for everyone involved.
  5. File a Lawsuit: If the infringing party does not comply and if your lawyer thinks your case is strong enough, you can file a lawsuit. Your attorney will guide you through the legal process, and if successful, you may be entitled to damages and injunctive relief.

This whole process will be so much smoother if you register your songs with the U.S. Copyright Office. Save yourself a potential headache by spending a little bit of time and money to copyright your music today. 

P.S. – what about A.I. and copyright? The U.S. government is still trying to figure it out.

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