Module 1: Introduction to Copyright

What is Copyright?

  • Definition: Copyright is a form of intellectual property law that gives creators of original works of authorship exclusive rights to control how those works are used.
  • Protection: This protection encompasses various rights we'll discuss shortly (reproducing, distributing, performing, etc.).
  • Purpose: Copyright law aims to:
    • Incentivize creative expression by rewarding artists for their work
    • Promote the sharing of knowledge and culture while balancing the rights of creators

What Can Be Copyrighted in Music?

To be eligible for copyright, musical works must be both:

  • Original: The work must be independently created by the author and possess a certain level of creativity.
  • Fixed in a Tangible Medium of Expression: The work must exist in a form that can be perceived, either directly or with the aid of a machine. This means written down as sheet music, recorded, or saved as a digital file.

Here's what CAN be copyrighted in music:

  • Melodies: The underlying tune of a song
  • Lyrics: The words of a song
  • Musical Arrangements: A unique interpretation of an existing melody or composition
  • Sound Recordings: The specific recording of a musical work (the version you hear on the radio or streaming services)

What Cannot Be Copyrighted?

  • Ideas: You cannot copyright a mere idea for a song. It must be realized in a tangible form.
  • Titles and Short Phrases: These are generally not considered substantial enough for copyright protection.
  • Facts or Common Knowledge: Copyright protects creative expression, not factual information, or common musical building blocks like chords and rhythms in isolation.

Copyright Rights: The Owner's Power

A copyright owner has the exclusive rights to:

  • Reproduce the work: Make copies of the work (CDs, digital downloads, etc.)
  • Distribute the work: Sell or otherwise transfer ownership of copies.
  • Perform the work publicly: Play the work live in concerts or broadcast it.
  • Prepare derivative works: Create adaptations, remixes, or translations based on the original work.
  • Display the work publicly: This applies to visual representations of musical notation or album artwork, for example.

Copyright Ownership

  • The Author: Initially, the creator(s) of the musical work is/are the copyright owner(s).
  • Joint Authorship: If multiple people collaborate on a song and their contributions are inseparable, that creates joint authorship with each person holding an equal share of copyright.
  • Work-for-Hire: In some cases, the employer or commissioning party is considered the "author" and owns the copyright (more on this in the module on contracts).

How to Obtain Copyright Protection

  • Automatic Upon Creation: In the United States and many other countries, copyright protection exists from the moment an original work is fixed in a tangible form.
  • Registration: While not mandatory, registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office provides several benefits:
    • Creates a public record of authorship.
    • It's a prerequisite for filing a copyright infringement lawsuit if needed.
    • Allows you to potentially recover statutory damages and attorney's fees if you win in court.

The Copyright Notice

While no longer strictly required, having a copyright notice is good practice. It typically includes:

  • The Copyright Symbol: ©
  • The Year of First Publication: When the work was first made available to the public.
  • The Name of the Copyright Owner: The individual or entity that owns the copyright.

Practical Tips for Independent Artists

  • Document your work: Keep records of your creative process. Date sketches, song drafts, lyrics, etc., to help establish creation dates.
  • Maintain ownership: Be cautious about signing away your copyright early in your career.
  • Register key works: Register your most valuable songs and recordings with the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • Learn to spot infringement: Become familiar with your rights so you can recognize potential copyright violations.