How to Use Musical Copyright Laws | 1500 Sound Academy icon

Musical copyright laws exist to protect your intellectual property (and sometimes your physical property) as a songwriter or recording artist. Learning how to create effective music protection for your work can prevent your intellectual property from being used without your permission, which also safeguards your income.

Because music isn’t a tangible, physical object that you can present proof of to a legal entity, it’s important to turn it into something that can be declared legally your intellectual property and therefore be protected from theft or plagiarism.

Create Proof of Your Work

Technically, musical copyright law states that your work can be protected from the moment it is made into something tangible. In other words, song copyright laws technically go into effect when you create a recording or write it down. But this can often be hard to prove in a court of law, especially without witnesses. In any case, it’s better to have more proof than less, so record your work with time and date stamps, and if you’re writing music out, add dates and signatures to your pages.

Previously, musicians and composers would mail themselves a copy of their work as proof, known as the “poor musician’s copyright” and while it is a fair example of proof, it is unwise to have this as your only example of ownership.

Get Your Work Officially Copyrighted

If it comes down to it and your music has been stolen or plagiarized, you may have to get involved in a lawsuit to solve the matter. Musical copyright laws are hard to enforce unless you’ve obtained an official copyright for the work in your name from the U.S. Copyright Office.

Obtaining an official copyright shouldn’t be difficult if you have sufficient evidence to prove your work. Protecting your music is as easy as providing copies of your music, filling out an application, and paying the filing fee. This is where creating proof of your work will make it much easier to obtain copyright-in the event of a copyright infringement lawsuit, the original proof of work makes a much stronger case when presented alongside an official copyright.

Know the Rights You Hold

A gavel on a white background

Once you’ve copyrighted your music, it is essential to make yourself aware of the rights you have over the works you’ve created. As an independent artist, your rights to your music will be different than they would be if you have signed with a publishing company or record label, so always be careful to research musical copyright laws and the effect they will have on your contract.

As an independent artist and the sole copyright holder, your basic rights to your music as outlined by current musical copyright laws are:

  • License to perform your music at any time
  • License to arrange, adapt or change your music at any time
  • License to reproduce your music
  • License to incorporate visual elements into the music, such as a signature dance or music video
  • License to sell, distribute, and display the music (and/or corresponding materials)
  • License to allow other people or entities to perform any of the actions above in accordance with contracts set by the U.S. Copyright Office, yourself, and the prospective performers

If you are the sole copyright holder of your music, you are also the sole entity entitled to financial gain from that copyright, and unlicensed reproduction of your work by another entity that results in financial gain for that entity is punishable by law.

*Seeking legal counsel is always suggested as laws change.

Learn the Difference Between Sound Recordings and Compositions

Woman mixing a song.

Musical copyright law currently recognizes two different types of copyrights- sound recordings and compositions. The sound recording, commonly known as ‘the master’, is the actual recorded track of the song that can be played out loud. The composition refers to the intellectual property that went into the song- the chord progressions, lyrics, melodies and harmonies, and instrumental lines.

As an independent artist, it’s important to protect your music in both of these copyright divisions. If you’re independent, you automatically own the copyright of your master recording and composition, but it’s important to get it officially copyrighted for posterity. If you’ve been signed to a record label or have a contract with a publishing company, it’s fairly common for the company to have contractual rights to partial or even full ownership of the masters. Ownership of the masters is typically how labels and publishing companies can make a profit as they are the ones who collect royalties from people streaming and downloading the music. Composition copyrights are less likely to be bargained for or stolen, but it’s still important to make sure you understand the musical copyright law that governs their ownership.

Examples like Kate Bush and Taylor Swift are useful when learning about musical copyright law. Swift’s first six album masters were bought by Scooter Braun when he purchased Big Machine Label, and he later sold them for a whopping $300 million. Since Taylor owns the compositions, she has since been able to begin the process of re-recording her original albums and copyrighting those masters to herself, but she lost the rights to the original recordings and all the profits those recordings have made since Braun purchased the label.

Kate Bush, on the other hand, has had sole copyright ownership of all of her masters from the start, which paid off handsomely in 2022 when one of her songs, “Running Up That Hill (Deal with God)”, went mega-viral, earning her over $2 million in streaming royalties in a one-month period. Her song was 37 years old.

Learn As Much As Possible About the Music Business

The best way to protect your music and yourself with musical copyright laws is to learn as much as you can about them. Enroll in a music business class at 1500 Sound Academy to learn how to negotiate contracts, file your taxes as an independent musician, and, of course, how to protect your music. Reach out today and learn how to make your passion into your profession.