Understanding Your Legal Rights
Being a DIY musician in today’s internet age doesn’t mean you just create music. It also means you create all sorts of work to support and market your work. You create art and graphics for your album covers, website,
, and more. You create and print out your lyrics and write blog entries and bios. You make music videos and vlogs. You take and post photos.
When you create original works like these, each one is automatically copyrighted by you. You instantly own a large set of rights that allow you to protect, license, monetize, and share your creations in any way that you wish. You are the music label.
Unfortunately, copyright law can get pretty confusing for most musicians. There’s a natural tension between what copyright law restricts and protects and what technology allows.
And while most musicians we’ve taught or consulted expect clear, black-and-white answers to their copyright questions, when it comes to the law, simple is not usually the word that comes to mind. Why? Because the tension that exists between the law and technology is always going to create some gray areas.
There are three key reasons why the law today lags behind the technological tools and techniques we use everyday to create, share, and promote our music:
1. The law is about getting permission -- the web is about copying and sharing.
The entire reason copyright exists is to allow creators to control their work and how it can be used. The web, on the other hand, enables anyone to make perfect copies of data and share it worldwide.
2. The law is limited to countries and jurisdictions -- the web is global.
Each country defines copyright law in slightly different ways. Some are extremely strict and have strong protections for creators, while others aren’t. But the second you
post a video
share a tweet
, or upload a track, it’s instantly available to a worldwide audience, and no laws in any one country hold sway.
3. The law is old and changes slowly -- technology is new and is constantly changing.
The law, especially in Western nations, evolves over time -- usually by retrofitting older rules applied to one situation onto new and novel situations. Because of this, lawyers usually speak using language that seems antiquated. For instance, the proper legal term for sound recordings in the US is “phonorecords” after the 19th century invention of the phonograph. Or, you’ll hear them negotiate “
synchronization licenses” when describing the right of a musician to charge a fee for having music “line up in sync” to a video image even though technology doesn’t sync audio and video in the same way as it did on film.
We’ll be posting articles here on the blog periodically about copyright law since it touches nearly every aspect of what a DIY musician does. But we wanted to make sure that before we started tackling some of the details, quirks, and convoluted rules behind copyright, you understood why sometimes there’s nothing but gray answers to your copyright questions.
Further, even if you have a decent understanding of the copyright laws in your own country, once you post something on the internet, your work will be copied all over the world, in jurisdictions with unfamiliar laws or none at all. And your work will go places that you will likely have no control and no way to reign in any infringing uses that you find.
That said, it often does make sense to register your music to protect it, because if it does get popular, registration can help you monetize it in the areas that you can reach. Plus, registration isn't difficult. In case you want to get started now, we cover the
registrations you should do for your music (copyright is only two of them) in
The Indie Band Survival Guide (Remixed & Remastered: Second Edition)
. Song copyright is also well-covered in the Lynda Course
Music Law: Copyrighting a Song
. In the meantime, we suggest preparing for this process by listing every piece of music you’ve created in a spreadsheet so you can track registrations.
Create a spreadsheet (perhaps on Google Drive) to list every key piece of music that you've released so that you can keep track of each song’s registration status.
Making Money With Music
(15-hour Online Course)
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