What exactly is a music copyright? Think of a copyright as a bundle of exclusive rights. The exclusivity means that only
you as the copyright owner may exercise those rights in your music, or authorize others to exercise them.
It's easy to copyright music. You have a valid copyright as soon as your original song or sound recording
is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.
That's a fancy term coined by music copyright law, and means that your song or sound recording
must be written down or recorded. You don't need to register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright
Office in order to have a valid copyright. However, registration does give you additional
protection in the event someone infringes your work. For additional copyright information and to learn how to register
your music copyrights, read the article, How to Copyright Songs and Sound Recordings
The Copyright Act provides for six exclusive rights. Which of those six exclusive rights
a copyright owner has depends on the type of work or artistic creation involved. In this
article, we'll look at the copyright owner's exclusive rights in songs and sound recordings.
Let's start with a brief review of how a song differs from a sound recording.
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Distinction Between a Song and a Sound Recording
Understanding the distinction between a song and a sound recording is crucial
to understanding your rights within the music industry. A melody and any accompanying
lyrics make up the song or the musical work. Musical work is the term used by
the Copyright Act to refer to a song. A sound recording is the recorded performance of a song.
A single song may have several different sound recordings. For example, the song "Amazing
Grace" has been recorded by a number of artists including Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley
and Leontyne Price. The familiar melody and lyrics make up the song. Aretha Franklin's
recorded performance of "Amazing Grace" is one sound recording; Elvis Presley's recorded
performance of the song is a separate sound recording; and Leontyne Price's recorded
rendition of "Amazing Grace" is still a third and distinct sound recording. That's three
separate sound recordings for the same song.
Music copyright law recognizes a copyright in the song and a separate copyright in the
sound recording. While the copyright owner of the song and of the sound recording
can be the same person, it usually doesn't work out that way. The songwriter is typically
the initial copyright owner of the song. When working with music publishers to generate
song revenue, songwriters frequently transfer the copyrights in their songs to
another person or organization. Take a look at the article,
Music Publishing: How Your Songwriting Generates Income, for a discussion on music publishing and the sources
of song revenue.
With very few exceptions, recording contracts provide that the record company is the
copyright owner of any sound recordings made under the contract. In those situations
where there's no written agreement indicating who owns the sound recording copyright, the
copyright is owned by the creators of the sound recording. While the creators are
usually the performers, in some situations, the creators might be the producers or
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Exclusive Rights in a Song
For the copyright owner of a song, the most important exclusive rights are the rights
to make copies or records of the song, the right to distribute copies and records of
the song, and the right to perform the song publicly. With respect to the right to
perform the song publicly - also called the public performance right - it doesn't matter
whether a live band is performing the song or whether a club d.j. is playing a recording of
the song. Either can qualify as a public performance.
As the copyright owner, you also have the exclusive right to prepare a derivative work based
on the song. A derivative work is a new work based on or derived from one or more pre-existing
works. For example, if you write new lyrics for one of your existing songs, the resulting song
is a derivative work.
The final exclusive right in your song is the right to display the song in public. As you
might imagine, the right to display a work in public has much more importance for visual
creative works such as paintings and sculptures than it does for a song. However, the display
right might apply to a song if, for example, you wanted to post the sheet music to your song
on an online website.
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Exclusive Rights in a Sound Recording
The exclusive rights for a copyright owner of a sound recording include the rights
to reproduce and distribute records containing the sound recording. These are the rights
that record companies are exercising when they manufacture and sell CDs and cassettes of an
artist's recorded performances. As the copyright owner of a sound recording, you also have
the right to prepare derivative works from your recording. As explained above, a derivative
work is a new work derived from one or more pre-existing works. Making a derivative work of a sound
recording entails placing a portion of an existing recording into a new recording.
The most significant distinction between the exclusive rights to a song and to a sound
recording is the public performance right. Before 1995, the exclusive right to perform a
work publicly applied exclusively to songs and not to sound recordings. This means that when
a recording of a song is performed publicly on the radio, on television, or in a nightclub,
the owner of the musical composition - the songwriter, or her assignee - receives royalty
income for that performance. The owner of the sound recording, which is usually the record
label, and the artist performing the song on the sound recording do not.
In 1995, Congress passed the Digital Performance Right and Sound Recordings Act.
This law gave sound recordings a very limited public performance right. The right applies
only to public performances that take place by digital audio transmission. A digital
transmission conveys information in a format that a computer understands using a stream
of 0s and 1s. So this performance right applies primarily to performances of sound
recordings on the Internet and not to performances of sound recordings that are on television,
on radio, or just played through an electronic stereo system
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This table summarizes the exclusive rights in music copyrights:
The Copyright Owner's Exclusive Rights
in Songs and Sound Recordings
| Make Copies
by Digital Audio
Joy R. Butler is an entertainment, intellectual property
and business attorney. (View Joy Butler's full bio.).
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