As musicians, we probably want to focus only on creating music. Notwithstanding, it is extremely helpful to have a general knowledge of business, marketing, and copyright. Copyright is a topic that our audience asked us to address in our articles, so we decided to do so. Please note at Flat, we are not experts on the subject, nor do we offer legal advice. We have done some research to give you the basics regarding what copyright means and how it works. If you want to learn more about it or if need help, please reach out to a lawyer specialized in the field.
What is a copyright and how does it work?
🙀 Copyright might seem intimidating and complicated. It is not that hard to understand. What represents complexity is its application and how to carry out a legal process related to it.
In a nutshell, copyright is part of intellectual property. It is a right that you have over your creations. It right you have to protect your expression of an idea. I want to emphasize the following. Copyright protects the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. In other words, you can copyright a song you wrote about love. But you cannot copyright the idea of making a song about love. The idea of love can derive infinite forms of expression.
🤯 Most people don't know that copyright is part of federal law, meaning it is a serious deal. Also, you have this right from the very moment you start creating your song. From the very first moment you begin to compose it, that song is your property. The right to that song goes beyond your death. By the way, the copyright remains in force until 70 years after the composer's death 👻.
⚖️ Copyright, like any other right, is an ideal protected by law. And the crux of the matter is to exercise that right. Ideally, you are supposed to respect the rights of others, including not plagiarizing someone else's songs. However, we know we don't live in an ideal world. So how do we exercise and protect this right?
The best way to protect this right is to register your songs. The registration of your compositions is legal proof that the song is yours. What is more, it generates a legal precedent that protects you if someone else wants to copy or use your work.
🗺️ The process varies from country to country, so we suggest contacting the institution in charge of copyrights in your country. The process is usually simple and, you do not need studio-quality audio nor a high level of production. It can even be a recording made on your cell phone.
Here you will find a guide on how to register your songs in the USA.
Now, you can copyright your music in different ways. You can copyright a score, audio, or video. Usually, the requirements are:
✅ The song has to be original.
✅ The song has to have some creativity (in the legal lexicon for this: "modicum of creativity").
Additional source: chooser is a free software for medias, such as text/video/music, where you can decide how people can use your work.
Types of protection
In general, copyright protects you in 6 ways.
No one but you can do something with what you have created. Unless if the person has a license to do it. Meaning you gave them the right to use your work, in exchange for a payment, or for free.
No one can not use your work to create something derivative. For example, it is illegal to print a phrase of a copyrighted song in a shirt and sell it without a proper license.
I want to clarify, if you were inspired or influenced by another composer, that does not mean you are committing a crime. As long as your work is original and creative, there will be no problem.
No one has the right to play your music without a proper license.
No one can sell your music without a proper license.
5. Publicly display
No one can publicly display your music. The example of the t-shirt applies to this one too.
6. Digital Audio Transmition
No one can perform your music publicly using digital audio transmission unless the person has a valid license to do it.
For example, you can not have a restaurant and play a copyrighted song without a license. There are institutions in most countries in charge of collecting the money from these licenses to pay the artists.
FYI, this does not mean that you can not hear music on a streaming platform at home or with your friends. Those streaming platforms have their terms of service, on which artists or labels have to agree to make their music available to the public in there. Depending on the performance of the artist, there are royalties on those streaming platforms. Sadly, those royalties are low. The artist must be very famous, having many daily listeners, to get significant royalties 😔.
What is the dividing line between "being inspired by" and plagiarizing?
First of all, we might mention what copyright does not cover. It does not protect:
❌ Short phrases
❌ The name of a group
❌ A style
❌ A groove
❌ A rhythm
❌ A chord progression
The truth is, the legislation concerning this is pretty vague.
💁♂️ On the one hand, this makes it possible to apply it to most cases, representing a positive quality since it is difficult to predict what infringes copyright.
💁♀️ On the other hand, it becomes difficult to carry out the exercise of the right.
The general advice is to avoid going to trial 🙅♂️, which would be expensive and time-consuming. These legal procedures will usually not benefit either party. A case can last between 2 and 10 years. Therefore, always try to settle by other means.
🤓 If you are interested in seeing the logic of these types of cases when it comes to taking them to trial, I recommend the following two videos:
It has happened in our platform that some user, without a bad intention, creates an arrangement. The original song is copyrighted. Legally, this person should not have done it. Consequently, the song owner's lawyer contacted us. The lawyer stated that that piece is copyrighted and asked us to remove the arrangement from the platform. We unpublished it and explained the situation to the user. Problem solved. There was no need to complicate the situation 🧘.
If someone copied or plagiarized one of your songs without your consent, we have a couple of suggestions. First of all, please register your song. Second, contact the person. Mention that piece is copyrighted, which means it is your intellectual property which is a federal right. You can mention that copying and using it is illegal, representing a crime against the federal law. Ask them cordially to delete their arrangement and stop using your song. As we said, it is best to seek the advice of a lawyer who is an expert in the field.
What about co-writing?
In cases where the creation is shared, ownership is equally distributed. Unless otherwise stated in the registration. If one of the composers registers the song under their name, the right to that piece will be theirs. You would need to negotiate with the other composer or open a trial to prove it was a shared composition. But I repeat, avoid going to court at all costs.
🤝 Try to have a dialogue and find other ways of resolution.
What about labels?
If you signed or are about to sign a contract with a label, PLEASE, review the agreement carefully, ideally with an expert lawyer. The contract determines who, and in what percentage, will have the right to the intellectual property of your work.
Before, it was indispensable to be part of a label if you wanted to dedicate to music. Now it is not imperative. One of the advantages of remaining independent is that you have more freedom and you own all the rights over your works. Like everything else, being an independent musician or belonging to a label has its advantages and disadvantages. Always remember to choose the best option for you and seek to protect your intellectual property rights.
What about covers?
Remember, you can use someone else's song with a valid license. For example, if you want to upload a YouTube video of a cover song, you need to check if it is copyrighted. If it is copyrighted, you need to get a license to make the cover.
I think these sources might be helpful:
Flat and copyright
We are a music notation platform and not a legal entity. Consequently, we don't have a role in the matter. However, we care about intellectual property rights. Therefore, we provide two measures to facilitate the exercise of this right. First, you can add the credits to your score so that people know that song is yours. Second, you can keep your score private and make sure that no one but you can access your score.
I hope this article has helped you understand what copyright is all about.
Thanks for reading!