The legal side of the music business is probably one of the most ignored (or feared) parts of being in a band or being a musician. Even the basic laws that are designed to protect us are often overlooked or seem too confusing to bog ourselves down with. It really isn’t that difficult.
Copyright law is fundamental to all musicians (and all creative persons.) Learning and understanding the basic laws that protect your music should be a priority as you and your band progress through the steps of your music careers.
For this research, we will assume that all works are originating from within the United States. Cutting through the history and reasons behind the copyright laws, let’s get straight to what is and is not protected by the copyright laws.
A copyright is the protection given under the United States law to authors of “original works.” As the author of your songs, you are granted these rights and may pursue legal action against anyone who violates these rights. The protections you get with a copyright are the rights to:
- reproduce copies of the work
- produce alternate versions of the original (prepare derivative works)
- distribute copies of the work to the public or transfer ownership
- display the work publicly
- perform the work publicly
One of the more confusing things about the law is whether you have to actually file with the United States government to obtain a copyright. The answer is that you DO NOT have to register your work to receive copyright protection. In the case of a song, it is considered copyrighted once you have recorded it (onto a tangible format.)
The key for musicians in copyright law is that your songs are not considered copyrighted until you have recorded them. Playing songs in your garage, basement, or live, does not constitute a copyright. You must record the song first before it is afforded copyright protection.
The above protections are for songs and lyrics (as well as a list of other creative works.) Other aspects of your band and image, however, are not protected by copyright laws. For some of the following, we will have to explore other aspects of the law and file for other protections such as trademarks or patents (which we will discuss in another article.) Copyright law does not cover:
- works not fixed in tangible form (i.e. choreography that is not written down)
- titles, names, slogans, phrases
- works consisting of no original authorship
So, if you are afforded the rights to copy without filing with the government, why should you file? The quick and simple answer is that if you ever have any legal action concerning any of your songs, you are going to have to register anyway. This goes for someone trying to sell your music without your permission, possible licensing problems, or even piracy of your music. You will also need to register your copyrights when you get into record deals or distribution through other companies.
In a future article, we will discuss how to go about registering a copyright with the government. It’s pretty simple. If you still have questions or are confused about something regarding copyright law, check out one of the resources used for this article or contact a lawyer in the music business.
If you think your music career is at the point you need copyright protection, it is time to get some serious help. Below we list the most basic sources you will need (not including a lawyer) to understand the specifics of music law.
- “Copyright Basics.” copyright.gov. United States Copyright Office.
- Passman, Donald S. All You Need to Know About the Music Business.
- Twomey, and Fox. Anderson’s Business Law and the Legal Environment.
- Wilsey, Darren, and Daylle Deanna Schwartz. The Musician’s Guide to Licensing Music.
Image from Flickr user Horia Varlan