Managing and Protecting Your Rights: Copyrights for Music Composers
For composers and songwriters, your creative works represent both artistic passion and potential livelihood. That’s why understanding how to leverage copyrights to protect your rights and income is so crucial. Learning the ins and outs of music copyright registration, monitoring infringements, enforcing your rights and properly administering works through publishing deals and performing rights organizations enables you to fully capitalize on your catalog while defending against unauthorized uses. Use this guide to make copyrights an asset that supports your career.
Music Copyright Basics
Copyright law protects original works of authorship like songs and compositions. As creator, you automatically hold certain exclusive rights, but formal registration and administration provide key advantages:
Your copyright exists the moment you fix a work into tangible form like sheet music or a recording.
While not required, registering the copyright via the U.S. Copyright Office enhances abilities to enforce rights and seek damages.
You can administrate rights yourself or partner with publishing companies and PROs to assist.
Copyright extends to lyrics, melodies, rhythms, song structures and other compositional elements.
Copyright facilitates pursuing remedies against unauthorized reproductions, distributions or public performances of works.
While automatic, leveraging copyrights strategically unlocks their full potential.
Though your rights exist upon creating new works, formal registration with the U.S. Copyright Office provides meaningful benefits:
Registration creates an official public record of your copyrighted work and your ownership claim.
In infringement lawsuits, registration establishes validity of the copyright for stronger legal standing and broader remedies.
Only possible if works were registered before infringement occurred.
Either file an online application and upload the work or mail physical copies.
You can register published or unpublished works at any point, but earlier has advantages.
While not mandatory, prompt copyright registration is advisable once you complete new compositions.
Performing Rights Organizations
Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC provide valuable copyright administration services to songwriters:
PROs ensure you receive performance royalties whenever your songs get played on radio, TV, streaming platforms or live.
Joining a PRO registers your catalog in their database to facilitate royalty payments.
PROs continuously monitor public performances of members’ works across all relevant formats.
Collected royalties are distributed to you and any co-writers/publishers.
This passive income stream is vital for songwriters. Signing up early also establishes public records of your growing catalog.
Songwriters sometimes partner with established publishing companies through co-publishing deals to administer copyrights. Typical arrangements:
You assign part ownership (often 50%) to the publisher in exchange for their services.
Publishers handle registering copyrights, collecting royalties, licensing for sync placements, taking down infringements, etc.
Publishers often provide advances against future royalties earned.
Some provide feedback to refine songs or match you with co-writers.
For new songwriters, co-publishing jumpstarts passive royalty streams while adding infrastructural support.
Protecting Compositional Elements
Copyright law recognizes these core compositional elements specifically:
The sequenced pitches that form the tune.
The words and poetic substance of songs.
The cadence and syncopation of beats.
The arrangement of sections like verses, choruses, bridges.
Supporting chords and instrumental parts.
Style, phrasing, articulations that distinguish your rendition.
Familiarize yourself with key elements assess infringement risks.
Enforcing Copyright Against Infringement
Despite protections, composers sometimes encounter infringements of rights. Options to address unauthorized uses include:
Polite, good faith efforts to resolve issues directly with minimal legal involvement.
DMCA Takedown Notices
For online infringement, request takedowns per the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Cease and Desist Letters
Have a lawyer send formal notice demanding the infringer stop illegal uses.
Taking defendants to court over copyright damages and disgorgement of profits.
To recover statutory damages and attorney fees in lawsuits, works must have been registered before infringement occurred.
Vigilant monitoring helps spot instances of infringement early so they can be addressed promptly.
Typical Copyright Infringements
Common scenarios that constitute infringement of compositional rights include:
Others recording their own version of your song without permission/payment.
Sampling Without Clearance
Using even short excerpts of your music in new sound recordings unlicensed.
Sync Licensing Breaches
Placing your music in ads, films or videos beyond the scope of agreed synch licenses.
Making copies or digitally distributing your sheet music or sound recordings without consent.
Live Performance Infringement
Bands or venues publicly performing your songs live without paying royalties.
Deceptively similar lyrics or melodies clearly derived from your original compositions.
Stay vigilant about monitoring how/where your catalog is exploited.
Typical Remedies Against Infringers
When pursuing action over copyright disputes, possible remedies include:
Seeking actual damages plus disgorgement of any profits the infringer earned from the infringement.
Standard ranges from $750-$30,000 per infringed work without having to prove actual damages.
Court orders barring unauthorized uses upon threat of legal penalties.
Impounding of Infringing Materials
Court ordered surrender and destruction of illegally reproduced copies and related assets.
In some cases, the losing party may pay your legal costs.
Seeking legal counsel helps pursue the maximal remedies available under law.
Fair Use Doctrine
Fair use permits limited re-use of copyrighted works without permission under certain conditions:
Altering the excerpted content to new purposes like parody or commentary.
Just small portions, not substantial ones.
Impact on Commercial Value
No negative impact on the marketability of the original work.
For teaching, scholarship, news reporting etc. rather than commercial gain.
But for outright reuses in sound recordings, fair use rarely applies. Get licenses.
Administering International Copyright
With digital music distribution, compositions easily cross borders. Be sure to administer copyrights globally:
167 member countries recognize copyrights from other participating nations.
Local Performing Rights Organizations
Administer public performance royalties in foreign markets through PRO equivalents.
International Standard Works Codes
Get ISWC codes to identify compositions across global registries.
Authorize foreign publishing administrators or PROs to license usages in relevant territories.
With the right partnerships abroad, you can monitor foreign licensing and collection much like domestically.
Using Copyright Notice
Placing visible copyright notice on your works helps deter infringement and signals your ownership:
© Symbol, Name, Year
Standard notice format: © Your Name 2023
“All rights reserved” or similar
On Both Works and Packaging
Include on artwork, liner notes, sheet music, masters, etc.
Embed copyright details into music file metadata fields.
Prominent copyright branding cements your composer credit and ownership status.
Managing Split Copyrights
On co-written songs, copyright law recognizes divided ownership interests:
Document Splits in Writing
Formal split sheets detail percentages owed to each contributing writer. Get signatures.
When registering copyright, indicate the fractional share you own.
PROs etc. allocate royalties by documented split percentages.
Permission Needed from All
Exploiting the work commercially requires agreement from all co-owners.
Proper splits documentation prevents discrepancies about ownership interests.
Transferring Copyright Interests
Copyright rights can be wholly transferred or assigned from one party to another through formal agreements:
Agreements can transfer exclusive rights or just non-exclusive usages.
Rights can be assigned entirely or limited by time, territory, medium etc.
Assignors often retain rights to receive royalties and credit.
Copyright transfers must be memorialized in a signed written agreement.
Allows authors to eventually terminate assignments after a defined period.
While transferring rights can provide upfront income, only surrender specific rights for defined periods to retain leverage long-term.
Protecting Unpublished Works
Unpublished works enjoy stronger copyright protections than published ones:
Unpublished works don’t need to be registered to sue for infringement.
Possible even without registration for unpublished works infringed.
Unpublished works are exempt from public domain due to non-renewal.
Unpublished works remain under copyright for the author’s lifetime + 70 years.
Balance exploiting compositions commercially with maintaining some as unpublished for added legal protections.
Using Caution with Covers
While covers don’t require full permission and licensing like sampling does, take care to avoid infringement:
Don’t Copy Master Recordings
Only use underlying compositions, not original recorded renditions.
Pay Publishing Royalties
Covers still require payment of royalties to publishers/PROs.
Credit the Writers
Properly credit the composers of any work you cover.
Avoid Lyrics Changes
Modifying lyrics risks infringement without consent.
Don’t Imply Endorsements
Don’t suggest approval or endorsement of covers by original artists absent permission.
Legally covering others songs requires adhering to key guidelines.
Leveraging copyright effectively is as vital for musicians as honing your craft. Register new works promptly, monitor uses diligently, defend against infringement, transfer rights strategically, and partner with publishers/PRO’s thoughtfully. Treat copyrights as the assets they are so you can both profit from your creations and protect their integrity for the long run.
- 1 Managing and Protecting Your Rights: Copyrights for Music Composers
- 1.1 Introduction
- 1.2 Music Copyright Basics
- 1.3 Registering Copyright
- 1.4 Performing Rights Organizations
- 1.5 Co-Publishing Deals
- 1.6 Protecting Compositional Elements
- 1.7 Enforcing Copyright Against Infringement
- 1.8 Typical Copyright Infringements
- 1.9 Typical Remedies Against Infringers
- 1.10 Fair Use Doctrine
- 1.11 Administering International Copyright
- 1.12 Using Copyright Notice
- 1.13 Managing Split Copyrights
- 1.14 Transferring Copyright Interests
- 1.15 Protecting Unpublished Works
- 1.16 Using Caution with Covers
- 1.17 Conclusion