United States copyright law basics for musicians

United States copyright law basics for musicians

Copyright is a set of exclusive rights granted to creators of new works of art.  Copyright allows creators to control copying, distribution and public performance of the works they own.  Musicians that create music are considered creator of works of art.  Frequently musicians, despite all their gifts and talents, are not familiar with how copyright law works.  It is important for musicians to have a basic understanding of how copyright law can be used to protect a musicians hard work.

A fundamental aspect of copyright law is that copyright begins when a new work is fixed in a tangible medium.  This means that unless a musical composition is written down on paper, recorded,  stored on a computer, or saved in some way, copyright law does not protect the musical composition.  A musician that is free styling does not  gain a copyright on music that is not recorded in any way.

A musical composition can be granted two types of copyright.  The first copyright is the actual musical composition, the notes on a page of music. The second copyright would be a sound recording of the musical composition being performed.  It should be noted that the copyright on the sound recording is purely related to the sound recording, if the copyright on the musical composition has expired, other musicians can perform the musical composition without infringing on the copyright related to the sound recording.

Fixation is different than publication.  A musical composition is copyrighted when it is recorded, but that does not mean the musical composition was published.  A musician can have a copyright in an unpublished musical composition.  The distinction between published and unpublished works used to be broader, but the Copyright Act of 1976 narrowed the difference between published and unpublished works to a few minor differences.  Musicians should keep in mind that even if the do not publish a work, they have copyright to the work.

A live performance of a musical composition is not considered publication of the work.  Selling copies of a musical composition or posting a recording of the musical composition on the internet is considered publication of the work.

Registering a copyright strengthens a musician’s copyright.  There is little value to registering a musical composition which has not been published.  Copyright protects a musician even if the copyright is never registered with the United States Copyright Office, but the cost to register the copyright is so low compared to the value of the rights granted it is foolish not to register the copyright of a musical composition.  Registration of a copyright is valuable because registration is a requirement to file a copyright infringement lawsuit, it grants the copyright holder statutory damages of $150,000 per infringement, it grants the copyright holder the ability to get attorney’s fees.

There is a rumor that mailing a copy of a work to yourself is a cheap and easy way to register a copyright.  This is false, the only way to register a copyright in the United States is through the United States Copyright Office.  Musicians should be sure to register both the copyright to the musical composition and the sound recordings of the musical composition separately.

Registering a copyright with the Unite States Copyright Office is very simple.  The United States Copyright Office encourages electronic filing.  Form-CO should be used for electronic filing.  The form can be found on www.copyright.gov . This form is used for both the composition and the sound recording. The cost of filing is $35.00 for electronic filing.  A copy of the musical composition will need to be deposited with the United States Copyright Office to complete registration.

In a future blog post we will discuss how to monetize a copyright after it has been registered, please join us again.

If you have questions of comments for the authors of this blog please email us: admin@uspatentlaw.cn