File Under: Understanding Your Legal Rights, Getting Licensed and Generating Royalties, Making Money With Music

Copyright is behind so many important income streams from licensing music for TV, film, and advertising to generating royalties when streamed or played on the radio. Because it's so critical to get this topic right, we’re going to tell you exactly how to make sure that you can copyright every piece that you write. And we'll explain the rights that you get when you do copyright it.

Copyright protects the creators of original works of art. That means all the original music you make, videos you create, photos you take, and text you write is all copyrightable. Best of all, there’s no need to register any of your songs, videos, photos, or writing with any Copyright Office to "copyright it" -- you automatically get a copyright in something if you do two things:

1. Make something that’s original.
By definition the law won’t allow you to copyright something that isn’t yours (see Music Law: Copyrighting a Song). Your music, writing, or art has to be a creation that’s original. This means that it also can't be a derivative work -- the melodies, words, and recordings used in the work must be original as well. That is why it's risky to include samples from copyrighted songs which contain both melodies and recordings that you don't own.

But don't let this stop you from making music about topics within other songs since the law won’t allow anyone to copyright ideas. In other words, with music, the subject of the song can’t be copyrighted, instead it can only protect the unique way it was expressed. Otherwise, there could be only one song about "love". This means that Led Zeppelin can’t protect and stop others from writing or recording a song about a stairway to heaven, but they can copyright the exact lyrics and melody -- their unique expression -- of the song “Stairway to Heaven”. Obviously, there could be some gray area in what’s a unique expression, and if there’s ever a dispute, that’s what the courts and judges are for.

2. Capture it in a “fixed, tangible” format.
The law can only protect your copyright if it’s recorded in some way. For writing, simply type or write your words. But for music you have many choices: you can record it on your computer, capture it on video, write it down in notation form, or even sing it onto your voicemail. Performing the song live wouldn’t pass this test unless you recorded your performance.

As soon as you've met the requirements of both of these items you’re the proud new owner of a copyright. Although, of course, if you co-create an original work of art then you and the other co-creator or co-creators share the copyright together equally.

The next step is often to register your copyright at the U.S. Copyright Office which lets you get statutory protections if you do so within three months of its first publication. Also note that although you own the copyright, if you want to file an infringement lawsuit you'll need to register the copyright first.

Now that you have a copyright in your work, you own it and the law gives you rights in your work. There seems to be new ways to use music invented every day, but these are the key rights that musicians use:

  • Perform it live
  • Sell it to someone else
  • Make additional copies of the original recording
  • Transform it from one medium to another
  • License others to use it for free or for a fee
  • Make different versions of the music such as remixing it or transforming it (also known as “derivative works”)
  • Translate it into different languages
  • Divide up any of the above and give it to different people to control under whatever terms you want to dictate (for example, for a limited time and limited use)

And, you can do this for as long as you own your copyright. So, unless you sell your copyright or give it away, you’ll be able to do any of the above for your entire life. Also, the law grants ownership of the copyright for an additional 70 years after your death. This allows it to be transferred as part of an estate so you can will it to your family or other legal party. They can then use it or even sell it to a company which can continue to control the above rights.

Although copyright law allows you to protect your original works of art, as a musician you’ll want to grant the ability to use your music in order to find ways to promote and get others use your copyright. A song's popularity gives it value and this can generate royalties for you. This can mean getting it streamed online, played on the radio, selling it at a digital online store so it generates sales, or getting someone to use it on TV, in a movie, or in an advertisement so it creates residuals. Afterall, why would you spend so much time creating something original just to lock it up so no one can enjoy it? Copyright law gives you a monopoly on your original work of art so you can promote its use so it generates money for years to come.


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Photo credit: Horia Varlan