You now have a better understanding of the protections that come with music copyright, but how does it actually work? Please find below an overview of music copyright laws.
1. The work must be original in order to be protected by copyright
Music copyright is the result of the author’s creative process: it doesn’t need to be novel or revolutionary – the Copyright Office won’t critisize you – but it needs to be original.
What determines the originality of something? The court determines this when it comes down to it. Most music copyright lawsuits are defended by claiming that the underlying work is not original and therefore not protected by copyright. If multiple works borrow from the same source (for instance, both use the same idiom in the lyrics), the copyright owners of one cannot claim infringement by the other.
2. A court must determine whether copyright law has been violated
Copyright owners hold several exclusive rights – and anyone who violates those rights is considered to be a copyright infringer. The offender must compensate the owner – usually by paying a lot of money – if a copyright infringement is proven in court.
The first step, however, is to establish that copyright infringement has occurred. To do that, you must prove:
There has been a copying of the copyrighted work
“Sustainably similar” to the original
A mix of quantitative and qualitative analysis is usually used to examine the second point, so the court must bring in external experts to determine how much and how much has been copied, as well as if the work resembles the source sufficiently. In most cases, the extent of the infringement is more important than the amount – the court can deem copyright infringement for samples less than 2 seconds long, if the “character” of the original composition has been copied.
It is more difficult to prove that a copyrighted work has been copied. It’s important to remember that copyright infringement doesn’t have to be intentional. Let’s say you used a sample from an internet pack that stated that all the samples were free to use and licensed under Creative Commons. However, even if you didn’t intend to infringe on any copyrights, you will still be liable if the sample you used belongs to a copyrighted work.
Courts must also prove that the potential infringer had access to the copyrighted material, i.e., was able to see or obtain it. The same material can be generated independently by two people on paper. In other words, if neither of them had access to each other’s work – let’s say it was stored in a bunker and never published – both will end up owning legitimate copyrights, even if their work is 100% identical. It’s a completely unrealistic scenario, but according to copyright law, it’s not impossible.
It’s important to note that access doesn’t mean that the prosecution must prove that the infringer accessed the copywriter’s material. The infringer must prove that he or she had the ability to do so. For example, if the video was hosted on YouTube, the infringer would have had the ability to do so.
3. Records labels are responsible for regulating (and, often, owning) master recording rights
It depends on the type of recording deal in place whether the label is a primary owner or just a party that acquires the rights to exploit the master copyright on behalf of the artists. Generally, the record label that paid for the recording handles the copyrights and royalties.
In a classic “artist deal,” the label signs the artists before the recording is made (recording) and pays for the recording process, becoming the primary owner of the master copyright. Record labels then share a portion of the revenue with artists in accordance with their recording contracts.
4. Publishers are responsible for enforcing compositional copyrights
As with master copyrights, compositional copyrights are typically managed by publishers.
The compositional copyright, however, works differently than the master copyright. As a writer’s share, there is always a portion of the copyright that belongs to the author (or authors). In most cases, the copyright is 50%, but it varies by country and even type of royalty.
Publishers get 50% of the copyrights, but songwriters also get a share. By signing a publishing deal, a songwriter transfers a percentage of their publisher’s share to the publisher in exchange for their services. The publisher’s share can range from 10 to 100%, and the duration of the rights can range from an entire copyright period to a few years. Publishing deals vary depending on their nature.
5. A copyright lasts 70 years after the owner dies
When the last surviving writer dies, copyright protection lasts for 70 years. A publication period of 95 years or a creation period of 120 years can be the norm in some cases. Afterwards, it becomes public property.
6. In the United States, cover versions require only a mechanical license
If you want to release covers commercially, you’ll need a mechanical license in some countries.
In contrast to derivative works, simple covers don’t borrow any components from the master recording, and they copy the composition in full (which is covered by a mechanical license, rather than a sync license).
Performing covers as part of the live show does not require any additional licenses or permits.