The dictionary defines copyright as, “a person’s exclusive right to reproduce, publish, or sell his or her original work of authorship (as a literary, musical, dramatic, artistic or architectural work)”. By that definition, it’s a fairly broad term, as it can be used when discussing paintings, literary works, photographs, movies, software, etc. Luckily, we’ll only discuss copyright here as it relates to the world of music. So for our purposes, a copyright is a person’s exclusive right to ownership of an original musical piece.

These exclusive rights allow the copyright owner to use the original musical piece in certain ways, which include:

  • Reproduction
  • Distribution of copies
  • Public performance
  • Public display
  • Making derivative works

What are the different types of rights you receive?

  • Reproduction: The right to make copies of the work (i.e. record, cassette, CD, sheet music).
  • Distribution of copies: The right to distribute and sell copies of the work.
  • Public Performance: The right to have the work performed publicly (i.e. nightclub, live venue, on the radio, television, elevators, stores).
  • Public display: The right to display the lyrics and/or musical notation to a song (e.g. music on a karaoke machine).
  • Making derivative works: The right to create a music work based on another (i.e. a parody or remix to an existing song).

These rights are exclusive to the copyright owner. Therefore, no one can do any of these things without the permission (usually granted in a license), of the copyright owner.

When and how do I obtain a copyright?

Copyright begins automatically the moment a musical work is created and written down or recorded. It’s important, however, to also register your work with the United States Copyright Office or your country’s Copyright Office in order to get additional benefits and protection (e.g. the ability to take legal action if your song is used without permission).

You may have heard that the “Poor Man’s Copyright,” which is the practice of mailing a copy of the work to oneself, is another way to obtain a copyright. This is not true. There is no provision in the Copyright Act that offers protection for the “Poor Man’s Copyright” and it is not a substitute for registration.

Why is copyright important to you?

As a songwriter, you’ve spent hours developing your craft and pouring your heart into your lyrics and music. It would be devastating to turn on the radio and hear the lyrics you worked so hard on, being sung by someone else who has failed to pay for their use. They’re basking in the glory of a hit song while you’re penniless and stuck in the bedroom, with no proof that the song they’re singing is actually yours. Getting a registered copyright protects you from having your musical ideas taken or used without your permission and/or proper compensation.

As someone interested in using music for a visual project, it’s important to know that you must obtain permission from the appropriate copyright owner(s) before you do so. In the absence of such permission, you may be issued a copyright infringement notice or, if you’re very unlucky, a lawsuit.

You may be asking yourself, “How do I find out who the copyright owner is?” Unfortunately, this is not always an easy task. Often there are multiple copyright owners of a single piece of music, and they are not always easily accessible or searchable. The good news is while finding the appropriate copyright owners for a song can be tedious, services like Songtradr offer catalogs of cleared tracks where all owners are connected in one place. This saves “buyers”, time and money when licensing the music they want, while simultaneously benefiting  “sellers” with more transactions and ultimately, more money.


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