Introduction

When it comes to music business, copyrighting is one of the most important areas yet not clearly understood and easily ignored by a huge amount of artists. The money generated from copyright infringements and publishing royalties are usually huge and may sometimes far surpass other traditional means of revenue generation by an artist or a label. Generally speaking, the original copies of your music have to be protected or copyrighted after production to prevent theft, reproduction, distribution, public performance etc and to also facilitate the collection of royalties (the payment received by the owner of a real or intellectual property for use or exploitation of rights on his property) from publishing and other forms of music licensing. Once your music is legally protected, it is easy to go a publishing deal to collect songwriters and sound recording royalties.

What is copyright?

Copyright is the exclusive right given to the creator of a work to reproduce or use the work, usually for a period of time. Taken literally, it means “the right to copy”. Copyright is intended to protect the original expression of an idea in the form of a music but not the idea itself. For a work to be copyrightable, it must be an original work that is fixed on something tangible (and not an idea). “Original” means that the person claiming the copyright created the work as an original piece. A “work” involves something more concrete than just an idea in your head; it means something tangible, such as a written document or a sound recording. If for example you sing an original song to your friends, you don’t have a copyright. If the song is recorded, then you do. This is because with the recorded work, you have something tangible. Why should people formally register their copyrightable work? Because it provides written protection or proof. It is also worth mentioning that a copyright does not protect artist/band names or song titles. To do this, one must apply for a trademark protection for a particular artist, band or song name.

When do you own a copyright?

As mentioned above, you own the copyright of a work as the original creator when you record the composition in a tangible form. This could be a lyrical writing or a recorded audio. You can own a copyright as an individual, a joint-work or a work for hire. As an individual, this means that you are the original creator of the work. A joint-work is a work created by two or more parties, which each party contributing content that could be independently copyrighted. In this case, the copyright will be owned by both parties. In a work for hire, you commission an individual to create a specific work for you. You however are the copyright owner, although you are not the direct creator of the work and both parties have to agree in writing that it is a work made for hire. All these copyrights however have time-frames. For all works created on or after January 1, 1978, the copyright protection last for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years after the author’s death.

What does a copyright cover?

Whomever owns the copyright of a song has the right to do the first version of the song, called the “right of first control.” No one can do a cover of the song until the copyright owner has done a version that’s been distributed to the public. To record the song again, you must get a license to do this, and the copyright holder must issue one, as long as you apply properly. This is a compulsory mechanical license and these licenses are issued to those wanting to record and release a copyrighted work. It is worth mentioning that a compulsory license cannot be denied by a songwriter (or publisher). This means for example that an artist can do a version (or “cover”) of someone else’s song as long as the song has already been recorded and publicly released. However, you must notify the copyright owner and pay a set fee called the statutory fee before you can obtain the compulsory mechanical license which will enable you to publicly release the work.

The owner of a copyright as well as authorized third-parties have the rights to mechanically reproduce the work (for CDs or digital downloads), publicly distribute the work and publicly perform or display the work in concerts, TV, radio, etc. 

What are the types of copyrights in music?

There are two types of copyrights in music; musical composition and sound recording copyrights. The musical composition copyright protects the lyrics and the underlying music (instrumental, beat, etc). When music and lyrics are copyrighted, it’s indicated by the symbol ©. Musical composition copyrights are usually owned by songwriters and/or publishers. As an artist or a label, you may not own the publishing of the song, but you still own your recorded version, and you should protect it. The sound recording copyright protects a particular recorded or master version of that lyrics and music. When a sound recording is copyrighted, it’s indicated by the symbol ® next to the title. Sound recording copyrights are usually owned by artists and labels. Owning the copyright for the sound recording provides protection from pirates and people who might sample from it. For example, the song “Roll On” was originally written and composed by J. Prolific. He (or his publishing company) therefore owns the copyrights of the musical composition. If this song is remixed or performed by several artists, the copyright for those particular sound recording versions of the track are owned by these artists (or their record labels).

How can a music be copyrighted?

In general, a music is universally accepted as copyrighted once put in a tangible form (like a lyrics or a recorded song). This “universal copyright” is contained in the Berne Convention of 1886 which introduced the concept that a copyright exists the moment a work is “fixed”, rather than requiring registration. Although you own the copyright to your music, it is ideal for work to be legally registered with your government. This will give you some sort of written proof and more leverage in the event where your song is recorded and released without your permission. A registered work has more weight in a court house than a website link, social media post or any other traditional proof of ownership.

To legally register a copyright for your music, you’ll need to do that directly with the copyright body or office of your country. In most cases, you will need to register a copyright to your composition and a copyright to the sound record by filing for two separate forms; Form PA and Form SR. The copyright form that songwriters use most commonly to register the music and/or lyrics of a song is Form PA, which refers to works considered in the “performing arts. Form PA covers the copyright to a composition. To file for Form PA, you will need to have your music, lyrics and split sheets (in case of a collaboration). Form SR covers the copyright to a sound recording. To file for Form SR, you will need to have a physical or digital file of your music. When selling a recording, it’s important to file Form SR. Owning the copyright for the sound recording provides protection from pirates and people who might sample from it. Form SR also registers the lyrics and music.

In the US, copyright applications (Form PA and SR) are sent to the Register of Copyrights with a completed form, a check for the fee for each form sent, and a copy of your song, which they refer to as a “deposit.” It’s not necessary to send a copy of the lyrics or music sheet if everything is on the format you send. Since registration is effective the day the Copyright Office receives your material, send it by certified mail and request a return receipt. This may have an extra cost, but the receipt is proof of the date the material reached them. Hold the receipt until the Copyright Office sends your registration. It can take months for it to be processed.

Sampling and Copyright Infringement

Copyright infringement (sometimes referred to as stealing or piracy) is the use of a work protected by copyright laws without permission from the copyright owner. The copyright owner is usually the work’s creator (artist or label), a publisher or other business to whom copyright has been assigned. In music, copyright infringement occurs when someone samples or rerecords a song without crediting the writer or paying the appropriate royalties. Anyone who infringes a copyrighted music can be sued. To prove infringement, you must (i) prove that the work is “substantially similar” to the copyrighted one; and (ii) show that the person who produced something similar to the song that existed first had an opportunity to listen to it before composing their own version. Thus if someone writes a song that’s similar to someone else’s, but they’ve never listened to the original version, there’s no infringement. Copyright infringement disputes are usually resolved through direct negotiations, a notice and take down process, or litigation in a court.

In music, sampling is the reuse of a portion (or sample) of a sound recording in another sound recording. Samples may consist of melodies, vocals, sounds or entire sections of a music and may be processed using hardware (samplers) or software (such as digital audio workstations) such that they are slightly different from the original sample part. Most of what is known as sampling today originated from hip hop music around the 1980s. Today, sampling has influenced many genres of music and is even considered an art. But unless you get permission to use a copyrighted sound, you are at risk of being sued. Unauthorized sampling is also a form of copyright infringement. Apply for a license before releasing a music containing samples. The process of acquiring permission for a sample is known as clearance. There’s no set licensing fee for clearance. Contact the label and ask for someone who handles copyright clearances and ask for permission. Or you can go to a music clearance company. All in all, a sampled work must be cleared before publicly released.

Conclusion

No mater the purpose of your music, it is necessary that it is protected or copyrighted before publicly released. Copyrighting your music varies from country to country according to their laws but it usually involves legally registering your music in a Copyright Office. (Find out more on the procedures and requirements of your country). A copyrighted work prevents unauthorized use of your music and allows you to license and collect royalties from it, the same thing you will do if your are sampling or using a copyrighted material. This also serve as a source of income generation for artists and labels.

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