Here Are A Few Copyright Basics That You Might Not Know

Written by on January 3, 2024

Every musician, artist, band, songwriter, and creator should have at least a basic grasp of copyright since the more you know, the more likely you’ll be able to protect and be paid for your creative work. In my latest book, The Musician’s Ai Handbook, I covered the confusing world of Ai copyright (which I’ll cover in a future post), but before getting into that there are a few copyright basics that you’ll want to know. Here’s a brief excerpt from the book that covers it.

Copyright basics

“First let’s look at the classic definition of copyright.

Copyright is a legal protection given to creators of original works, including music. It allows the creator to control how their work is used and prevents others from using it without permission.

The purpose of a copyright is to make sure that creators benefit from their work to encourage them to keep creating. 

What Can Be Copyrighted

What can be copyrighted when it comes to music? There are actually two copyrights attached to every song:

  • The Composition, which includes the song’s melodies, rhythms, and lyrics. It’s the publishing aspect of the song (musical work or underlying work). 
  • The Sound Recording: This is the actual recording of a performance. For example, if a band records a song in a studio or a producer creates a song in his or her home studio, that specific recording is protected.

It should be noted that ideas, styles, or techniques can’t be copyrighted. Only the tangible expression of those ideas can be. That means that an idea that you might have for what you think is a unique chord progression or a recording technique can’t be copyrighted.

When it comes to Ai-generated music, most of the time only the sound recording is mentioned and the composition (a big part of the revenue stream of the song) is overlooked. This is actually a big deal and something that we’ll get into more in depth in a bit.

Obtaining A Copyright

Many artists, songwriters and composers aren’t aware that you get automatic protection as soon as you create and record your music in a tangible form (like writing it down or recording it). Even better, as soon as the song is published online on either social media or a streaming service, it’s timestamped, which might be helpful to prove that you wrote it first if there’s ever a dispute.

The traditional way of obtaining a copyright was to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. In the pre-internet days this was always recommended but it’s no longer required thanks to the ability to publish online. It’s more of a hassle as well because the process involves filling out a form, paying a fee (from $45 to $125), and submitting a copy of the work. It does provide some additional legal benefits, like the ability to sue for statutory damages, and is a powerful tool to have when it comes to an infringement lawsuit.

Obtaining a copyright provides benefits for a long time. The copyright lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years. If there are multiple creators, it lasts for the life of the last surviving creator plus 70 years. If it’s a work for hire (like a buy-out for a film), the protection lasts 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter. After this period, the work enters the “public domain” and can be used by anyone without permission.

Rights of Copyright Holders

Holding a copyright is useful because it gives you a number of rights, such as:

  • Reproduction: Only the copyright holder can make copies of the song or allow others to do so.
  • Distribution: The holder controls the right to sell, lease, or rent copies of the music.
  • Performance: This includes playing the song in public, on the radio, or online.
  • Adaptation: Only the copyright holder can change the song or create derivative works based on it, like remixes or samples.
  • Digital Transmission: This pertains to the right to stream or digitally transmit recordings.

Exceptions And Misconceptions

There’s a portion of copyright law widely misunderstood and misused called Fair Use. Fair use allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission for purposes like criticism, commentary, parody, news reporting, education, and research. 

Where the problems arise is that just because something is labeled as “educational” or “commentary” doesn’t automatically make it fair use. Each case is unique.

Factors that are looked at closely include:

  • Purpose and character of the use (e.g., commercial vs. educational). Non-profit educational uses are more likely to be fair use than commercial uses. However, commercial use doesn’t automatically rule out fair use.
  • Nature of the copyrighted work. It makes a difference whether the work is fact or fiction. Factual works (like news articles) are more likely to be subject to fair use than highly creative works (like novels or songs). Also, whether a work is published or unpublished makes a difference. Using unpublished works without permission is less likely to be considered fair use.
  • Amount used in relation to the whole work. Using a small portion of a copyrighted work may favor fair use, but there’s no specific percentage that’s automatically safe. Even if a small portion is used, if it’s the most significant or recognizable part work (like the major hook of a song), it might weigh against fair use.
  • Effect on the market value of the copyrighted work. If the new work acts as a substitute for the original, harming its market, it’s less likely to be considered fair use.

As you can see, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what actually constitutes fair use, and that especially applies to Ai-generated content. What might be fair use in one case might not be in another.”

You can read more about copyright basics and Ai copyright, and everything else related to Ai music production and promotion in my Musician’s Ai Handbook. Read additional excerpts and a table of contents here.

[Please note that this post is not a substitute for professional legal advice. Seek the advice of a licensed copyright attorney in the appropriate jurisdiction before taking any action that may affect your rights.]

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