About Music Copyright and Copyright Infringement

About Music Copyright

Music copyright is the action of claiming ownership of a created work, such as a song, book, or sound recording.

Music Copyright Piano

Music copyright is the action of claiming ownership of a created work

The general principle and rules of music copyright are relatively simple.  The creator of the work can submit the music copyright to the US Government through the U.S. Copyright Office, either by standard mail or through the U.S. Copyright Office website at www.copyright.gov.  There is an e-file option on their site that will meet most people’s needs.  At the time of this writing, the fee for filing a music copyright claim is $45 for a hard copy submission or $35 for an electronic submission.

The 1976 Copyright Act gives the owner of a music copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  • To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work;
  • To distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  • To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • To display the copyrighted work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work; and
  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.
Music Copyright Guitar

Ownership of music copyright will be given to the publisher in exchange for their services

Copyright Infringement and Abuse

Music copyright becomes a more complex issue when the work is created specifically for a publishing company or other such person or corporation.  In many cases, such as in the music industry, ownership of music copyright will be given to the publisher in exchange for their services, which include payment to the artist for the work, distribution and promotion of the artwork, payment of royalties, development of the artist, etc.  Contracts for these agreements can be extremely complicated and there are many stories of artists frustrated by the power they hand over to the publishers when they agree to give publishers ownership of the artworks that they created.  See the stories of Wilco, Prince, Nine Inch Nails, and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil for some of the most highly publicized.

The other complicated side of music copyright is protecting it from the abuse of others.  We are currently in a very complex age regarding music copyright rules of protection, as issues of fair use and plagiarism continue to be debated.  But, while there may be a gray area around the edges of music copyright infringement, the central premise is very clear.  If someone uses material for which they do not own the music copyright without the express permission of the copyright holder, then they have infringed on the rights of the copyright holder and the copyright holder may be entitled to compensation.  There are numerous cases throughout history of music copyright infringement, ranging from Frito-Lays unauthorized use of a Tom Waits song to Vanilla Ice’s sampling of Queen/David Bowie’s Under Pressure.  However, proving music copyright infringement can be tricky as it is up to the copyright holder to establish that the accused abuser had previously knowledge of the existing copyrighted material and that they knowingly intended to ignore the music copyright.

Music Copyright Document

The ins and outs of music copyright protection can be tricky and subtle

When Should I Consult a Music Copyright Attorney

If you are in the process of negotiating your music copyright with a publishing company or if you feel that someone has infringed on your rights to copyrighted material, then you will want the advice of an established music copyright attorney.  The ins and outs of music copyright protection can be tricky and subtle, so it is in your best interests to make sure that you receive consul from a knowledgeable expert.