Music Copyright Legal Issues

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 What Are Music Copyrights?

Music copyrights allow the creator of a song to protect their works from being sold, distributed, performed, or produced without their consent. The owner of a song usually needs to register their song with the U.S. copyright office in order to obtain a copyright. A song without a copyright could be used by others without the owner’s permission.

What Are Some Music Copyright Legal Issues?

Many different intellectual property issues revolve around copyrights, including:

  • Record contracts: Some record contracts involve the protection of copyrighted songs, and their use or sale exclusively with a single record company.
  • Royalty payments: Record companies and record stations must pay small fees to the owner of a song each time it is played. These are known as royalties. However, the song must be copyrighted before royalties can be collected.
  • Infringement: Unauthorized use of copyrighted songs is called infringement and can result in a lawsuit and even criminal consequences.
  • Public performances: Copyrights also dictate who and who can’t perform the song in public for profit.

The Rights of a Copyright Owner

The owner of a copyright maintains the sole right to:

  • Reproduce the Work: This includes rights to make copies of the work, such as the privilege to make compact discs containing copyrighted sound recordings.
  • Distribute Copies of the Work: The privilege to distribute and sell copies of the work.
  • Perform Works Publicly: Copyright owners of songs (but not sound recording copyright owners) have the right to have their songs performed publicly. A song is typically performed in a nightclub, live venue, on the radio, on television, in commercial establishments, elevators, or elsewhere where people can hear it.
    • A derivative work is defined as a work that is derived from another work, such as a remix of a previous song or parody lyrics based on a well-known song (an example is Weird Al Yankovic’s song “Eat It,” which combines Michael Jackson’s copyrighted original work “Beat It” with a parody lyric “Eat It”).
  • Perform Copyrighted Sound Recordings by Means of Digital Audio Transmission: This is a right now added by Congress, which gives copyright holders the right to perform a work through the use of a digital audio transmission. Digital audio transmissions include playing a song over the Internet or via satellite radio stations (such as XM or Sirius).
  • Display the Work: Though this right rarely applies to music, an example would be to display the lyrics and musical notation to a song on a karaoke machine.

All of the above cannot be done without the permission or authorization (usually granted in a license) of the copyright owner. For works published after January 1, 1978, the length of time they are protected by copyright is the author’s life plus 70 years. The copyright remains in effect for the author’s lifetime and 70 years after their death.

The Two Kinds of Music Copyrights

There are two different kinds of music copyrights:

Sound Recordings
A sound recording is simply a work comprised of recorded sounds. For example, the recorded performance of a song that appears on a compact disc is a sound recording.

Musical Works (that is, “Musical Compositions” or “Songs”)
A song’s music and lyrics, or both, can be considered a copyrighted work.

What is the Difference Between Copyrights in Sound Recordings and Musical Works?

Recordings and musical works are separate copyrighted works that one or more authors can own. A musical work, or a song, usually includes a melody and lyrics (but not always); a sound recording is a recording of the actual performance of the song. In the case of a songwriter who composes and writes the lyrics to a song, and Madonna records a version of the song and includes it on a new album, the songwriter owns the copyrights to the musical work (because she wrote the music and lyrics to the song). Madonna, or more likely her record label, maintains rights to copyrights to the recorded version of the song (the sound recording) that is included on the compact disc.

Copyrights for sound recordings and musical works generate two types of revenue streams for their owners: royalties from record sales and royalties from music publishing. In the example above, the songwriter would be entitled to the publishing royalties resulting from Madonna’s performance on the radio of the song, while Madonna would receive the royalties from the sales of the compact disc containing her recorded version of the song.

Registering Your Copyright

Even though an author receives copyright protection the moment his work is recorded, he can get important additional benefits and protections by registering it with the United States Copyright Office.

A copyright registration gives an author the right to sue if someone uses their work without their permission, as well as the right to receive statutory damages and attorneys’ fees. Registration costs $30, and the proper forms can be obtained online at the Copyright Office’s website.

The “Poor Man’s Copyright”

“Poor man’s copyright” is the practice of mailing one’s own work to oneself. There is not a provision in the Copyright Act that offers protection for “poor man’s copyright,” and it is not a substitute for registration. It is of no value since it only proves that an envelope has a postmark.

Copyright Notice

Although music copyright owners are not required to place copyright notices on their releases, it is highly recommended that they do so because:

  1. Fans of the music should be able to contact you regarding licensing, live performances, etc.;
  2. Copyright notices prevent anyone who has illegally copied the work from claiming that they did so innocently, which could lower their damages if a court finds that they have infringed your copyrights.

Copyright notices for musical works need to include the copyright symbol © (the letter C enclosed in a circle) or the word “copyright” followed by the year of publication and the name of the copyright claimant (ex: © 2022 LegalMatch Music Publishing). Sound recording copyright notices use a different copyright symbol (the letter P enclosed in a circle) followed by the year of publication and the company that released the recording (ex: 2005 John Doe Record Company).

How Are Copyright Disputes Resolved?

Conflicts over copyrights can be complex. There are often disputes over who wrote a song first and whether one artist “copied” another. As the songs and creative processes are analyzed to determine liability, expert testimony may be necessary. A copyright database search will also be required for dispute resolution.

There can be fines, jail time, and other consequences for violating the law. Copyright violations are among the most serious intellectual property crimes and are penalized accordingly.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Copyright Disputes?

There can be some fairly technical legal concepts involved in copyright laws, especially concerning music. Additionally, they usually require legal assistance, especially if a lawsuit needs to be filed. You may wish to hire an entertainment lawyer for assistance with a lawsuit or with any other issues regarding copyrights.

If you hire an attorney, they can provide you with legal advice and represent you during the formal lawsuit hearings. Use LegalMatch to find the right entertainment lawyer for your copyright law or music-related needs today.

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