The Importance of Copyright Law for Music Publishers

Legal proceeding, copyright law on desk

Knowing the importance of copyright law in the creative arts is more important than ever before. Even then, copyrights can cause many headaches for those within the entertainment industry. Why is this? Copyright laws help to govern music, images and ideas. Additionally, some confusion arises due to those who complicate and cheat musicians out of their rights. Regardless of your role in the entertainment industry, it is critical for you to understand the role of copyrights and the impact they have on music publishing.

What Is a Copyright?

First of all, a copyright gives the owner exclusive rights to an asset for a fixed period of time. What can have a copyright? Most importantly, the work has to be an original creation in a tangible form. Although copyrights come in many different forms, we will focus on the impact for music production.

Specifically in musical copyrights, there are two classifications: musical works and sound recordings. Musical work copyright includes the instrumentation of the song itself. For example, this includes a song’s sheet music and the lyrics. Furthermore, sound recordings deal with the specific recording of a musical work.

The First Step: The U.S. Copyright Office

Once the original work is complete, the author goes to the U.S. Copyright Office and registers their work. The process itself is now done electronically, which encourages more to register and results in a faster process. The formal registration should take place no more than three months from the initial release.

The copyright holder then has five distinct rights to(which they can also grant to third parties they authorize):
  1. Reproduce the work – for music, this involves reproduction of the music to be on CDs, vinyl records and MP3 downloads.
  2. They can distribute the work to the public (i.e. streaming the song online).
  3. Prepare works based off of the original (i.e. sampling).
  4. Perform the work publicly.
  5. Display the work publicly. (if it happens to be part of a visual installation i.e. an art exhibit or commercial advertisement)

Acquiring a License

Especially when it comes to musical works, there are certain things to consider. For example, if someone wants to perform a copyrighted song publicly as a cover, they would need to pay the copyright owner to obtain mechanical license. Additionally, there are private organizations others can go to get these mechanical licenses.

Copyright Organizations

Moreso, there are copyright groups (ASCAP, BMI and SESAC) that work with songwriters and musicians. As a result, they can issue “blanket licenses”, which allows other artists to cover all of the songs in the copyright holder’s repertoire. Each of these companies have their own rates, and also offers deals for partial licensing. Additionally, performance venues may also have the forms to facilitate the process.

Once an individual acquires the blanket license, the copyright holder cannot refuse their request. From then, those with the license typically proceeds without contacting the copyright holder. Regardless,, they are required to pay royalties on the work they create using the original as a result i.e. recordings of live albums where the cover song
is performed.

Copyright Law for Musical Works

Both published and unpublished musical works can be copyrighted. In addition, obtaining a copyright gives the holder protection against copyright infringement. The copyright notice is represented with a ‘©’ symbol, in addition to the the year and the creator’s name.

Recent Changes in Law

In the past, the creator had to wait for public distribution in order to claim ownership, however recent laws determine ownership begins with at the point of creation.

Then there are “joint-works” to consider. A joint-work represents original work created by two or more individuals. Joint-work also signifies the intent to merge their efforts. And lastly, there are “works for hire”. This refers to works commissioned by a third party. In this case, the third party then has copyright ownership.

What is the “Poor Man’s Copyright”?

Even more, there are those who have opted for what is termed the “poor man’s copyright”. This means the author mails themselves a copy of the work to establish a firm date of creation and leaves the envelope unopened. However, the “Poor Man’s Copyright” is not a substitution for copyright protection. The U.S. Copyright Office states that “There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.”

Copyright Protection and Duration

For some, confusion over copyrights lies in two areas – the protection of the copyright in connection to the duration of the copyright and what protection there might be against infringement.

How Long is my Work Protected?

As previously stated, protection begins as the original work is created. If the work was created after January 1st, 1978 (the date that the current Copyright Act went into effect), the copyright lasts for the life of the author with an additional seventy years tacked on.

Joint Works

When it comes to joint works created with another partner (such as a co-songwriter), the copyright protection lasts for the life of the last surviving author plus seventy years.


When it comes to a work-for-hire, it can be a bit tricky. In this case, the duration of the contract is 95 years from the first publication of the work or 120 years from its date of creation, whichever is shorter.

Termination of Contract

Contracts can be terminated by the author if they choose after 35 years. This doesn’t apply to any musical works made under a work-for-hire arrangement with a third party.


If a contract holder believes that there is infringement by another party, that party could be held liable. The process begins with the holder providing their copyright certificate or other documents that show their ownership of the work in question. They would also need to provide direct or indirect evidence of how the infringement on their original work took place, and engage legal representation in a suit against the party committing the infringement.

Most cases deal with indirect evidence which shows probable infringement since most don’t leave direct proof of what they’ve done. In music-related cases, the indirect evidence that copyright holders present deal mainly with the original sound recording having been infringed upon.

What Happens if You’re Guilty of Copyright Infringement?

If the owner’s work is found to have been infringed upon, there are different remedies available. They could get an injunction to prevent the continuation of infringement by the offending party. They could also seek to seize and impound any items that infringe on the copyright.

Judgement on copyright infringement additionally leads to benefits such as the potential to recover the actual damages that have been incurred, as well as statutory damages. This is totally dependent on how egregious the instances of infringement have been found to be.


Copyrights in the music industry are a complex affair. It takes a good understanding of the laws that govern copyrights and ownership to understand what rights a copyholder can have when it comes to songs and music publishing. Having this knowledge also helps to protect against any attempts at infringement on recorded and registered musical works which can lead to a lot of conflict. It is also useful to consult with legal counsel to learn more about the more detailed aspects of copyrights when it comes to music publishing in different situations.

Want to Learn More?

When it comes to music publishing, understanding the laws is necessary. If this kind of information appeals to you and you’re curious enough to learn more, take a moment to check out IPR Audio Production & Engineering Program and the training that they provide on-site about how to gain a better understanding of that subject.

Contact us today to learn more about the Audio Production & Engineering program and starting a rewarding career in the music industry.