Related pages: Composers, works and recordings

Music copyright law
coverage, proof, duration, assignment

What does copyright mean?

Copyright gives legal protection to certain kinds of creative work. National law in most countries protects copyright. In the UK copyright gives the owner the right to:

Other people don’t have these rights unless they are granted or acquire them.

There is a full description of UK copyright at the Patent Office.

What can be copyright?

Any of the following can be copyright in the UK.

Original words, music, recordings and graphics can be copyright but not musical arrangements or most song titles. Original means not a copy or close copy of something belonging to someone else, or something already in the public domain.

So the following parts of a CD package for example can be copyright:

How is something copyright?

In the UK your work is copyright automatically as soon as it’s written or recorded in some way. There are two main kinds of music copyright.

The composition or content copyright symbol (a C in a circle)copyright in the content or composition
The phonographic or recording copyright symbol (a P in a circle)copyright in a particular recording

Composition rights are sometimes called writer’s, author’s, publisher’s or mechanical rights. Recording rights are sometimes called phonographic or neighbouring rights.

A note about neighbouring rights
Neighbouring rights are a subset of copyright intended to cover performance, communication and dissemination rather the original works themselves. The owners of neighbouring rights would generally be performers, record companies and broadcasters.

Note that the © copyright symbol is used for all the different copyrights apart from recordings. The recording is the only one that has a special symbol. So the © copyright symbol on a CD doesn’t only apply to the songs or lyrics.

Protecting your copyright

To protect your copyright you only need:

  1. to prove it’s yours and when you produced it;
  2. to assert your copyright on any copies of the work (although it’s copyright even without a statement).

Strictly speaking you don’t need a copyright statement, but it is practical to have one. It should look like this:

You might find different wording recommended for particular cases; if in doubt check with someone like AIM, BASCA, MCPS or PPL. The name of the copyright owner or agent is important and should be unambiguous. If you use the name of your band or a pseudonym there may be problems elsewhere.

(The right to be identified as the author on copies is different, and you’ll probably want to assert your rights for that reason.)

In the USA you need to register copyrights with the Library of Congress if you’re going to enforce them there.

The recommended way to support a claim of ownership is to keep sealed, dated masters with a third party (bank, solicitor, etc.). A cheaper option is to post yourself a copy and keep it sealed (with a clear postmark date). Neither is definitive and it’s useful to have witnesses, working copies, documentation, demos, or some other evidence of authorship and development.

A note about proof of copyright ownership
Composers often confuse keeping a date-stamped record of their work with “proof of copyright ownership”. There is no guarantee that the holder of any dated original would be the copyright owner. Keeping such a record could be helpful in the case of a dispute but copyright case law shows that is rarely the central issue. By far the best way to establish your use and the existence of a work is to make it commercially available under your name.

How long does copyright last?

Type of copyrightDurationFrom…
Songwriter70 yearsdeath of writer
(or first publication if later)
Recording50 yearsrelease (first publication)

Remastered recordings are often given new dates with the intention of extending copyright protection but it isn’t likely to stand up in court. If re-recordings were new copyrights the whole principle would be undermined—borrowed samples would also qualify as new copyrights and there could be no infringement.

Over the years copyright has changed independently in each country. The length of copyrights has generally increased in stages. Works published before 1996 or in other countries may have different terms. To check on an old copyright you need to know the dates of publication, the law in place at the time and subsequent amendments to it. This can be complex.

What format is the copyright master?

The music is copyright as music, and the words are copyright as a literary work.

For written music, the copyright is the music played from the page. For recorded music the copyright is what you hear. (In both cases there’s a copyright in the medium too.)

The music that’s copyright is the work you identify as copyright. If it’s a CD, it’s the music that plays. Sheet music might be used in court but the copyright is not the notation or the score (that is a separate copyright).

The law isn’t limited to lead lines, melody lines or tunes, and it doesn’t say arrangements or chords can’t be copyright. The whole published, recorded, printed or written music is copyright.

Any medium that is acceptable to a court can be used for recording the words and music.

Can chords and beats be copyright?

The legal principles are:

Plagiarism must be proved for music copyright infringement. It is not enough that two works are the same.

Underlying chords or beats are unlikely to be original, and you can’t make a substantially original work by sticking a new chord into an existing song. Equally, the chords cease to be the song if you remove the tune, but that doesn’t mean chords are excluded.

A melody line can be sufficient to define a copyright. The addition of chords or harmonies later doesn’t change it.

The tune, melody, lead line, rhythm, chords, riffs, beats or arrangement don’t fully define music on their own. Copyright isn’t monophonic, although some monophonic work can be copyright, and some copyrights can be represented monophonically.

Are arrangements copyright?

The same work can have different arrangements. A reggae version of Yesterday is clearly the same song. In this case, aspects of the original arrangement and the reggae arrangement aren’t copyright. But just like the chords, arrangements are not totally excluded from copyright.

Arrangements and chords are considered as part of the copyright music but they aren’t normally copyright unless they are copyright as music in their own right. The same applies to rhythms, beats, etc.

(A new arrangement of a public domain work is frequently copyright.)

Music copyright in practice

If you want to explore music copyright in greater depth the actual judgements are an excellent guide to how cases can be decided. For example:

There is a good search facility at British and Irish Legal Information Institute and their database has many music copyright cases. You will see how many other aspects of law impinge on music copyright cases in practice.

Does copyright apply to everybody?

The UK Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 with a draft of subsequent amendments is published on the Patent Office web site in a Consolidated Text pdf. At the time of writing (2007) there are about 50 sections of exceptions but most of them don’t apply to personal copies. Personal copying is only permitted to allow time-shifting (with a video recorder for example).

There are three other general exceptions in UK copyright law:

Otherwise copyright applies. It doesn’t make any difference if it’s commercial, for charity or private use. Copyright is just about copying. The UK doesn’t even have a fair-use exception.

A note about changes to copyright
Copyright law changes quite frequently, especially to accommodate new technology (see EUCD and DMCA among others).

The 2006 Gowers Review of Intellectual Property (pdf) has recommended a number of changes to UK (including a personal music copy exemption).

Assignment of copyright

The copyright owner can assign some or all of his rights to someone else.

Copyright is normally assigned (transferred) to record labels and publishers when they sign artists and writers. Contracts spell out the conditions under which rights are transferred. Assignment of rights is not always the same duration as other parts of the contract:

If you assign your rights to a third party they will normally have to fit an existing blanket license to make clearance easier. Labels and publishers won’t tailor their assignments unless your rights are worth the trouble.

Performance rights for songs are normally assigned to the PRS so that they can collect performance royalties. Various rights entitle the holder to collect royalties, either on their own behalf or as an agent for a third party.

Duplication rights for songs are normally assigned to MCPS.

Performance rights for recordings are normally assigned to PPL.

International copyright agreements

Copyright is a legal thing. There is no copyright without national law.

Legal and commercial royalty arrangements vary widely in different countries (here is the USA Copyright website). None of them are perfect—they all have drawbacks.

The core international agreements were made by a group of about 50 countries but recent WIPO harmonisation extends this to the whole WTO. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act 1998 (DMCA US) and EU Copyright Directive 2001 (EUCD) are part of this trend. The main music agreements are the Rome and Berne Conventions, the Phonogram Convention and the two WIPO recording and performance treaties. For more information about international rights look at WIPO.

Copyleft and Creative Commons

Copyleft and Creative Commons are copyright licenses. Some people see them as a break with traditional intellectual property rights but they aren’t. They are irrevocable share-alike boilerplate copyright licenses.

Share-alike licenses
CopyleftArt Libre
Creative CommonsCreative Commons

They are only suitable for material that is intended to be permanently in free circulation. It would be difficult to start charging if you have previously licensed free copying.

Public domain

Public domain material is out of copyright, either because the copyright has expired or the owner has explicitly put the material in the public domain. Versions of public domain material can include new copyright parts.

Public domain material is free from all the copyright restriction mentioned above.

Some of the most notorious cases in music copyright relate to public domain material. The credit “Trad. Arr.” (traditional, arranged by) can turn a song with no publishing into royalty income. Alan Price is credited in this way for the publishing of The Animals House Of The Rising Sun.

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Related pages: Composers, works and recordings

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