What is Music Copyright?
So important was intellectual property to the founding fathers that it was fused into the Constitution, Article I, Clause 8, giving Congress the power “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Congress exercised that power and today copyright law lives in Title 17 of the United States Code, applying to music and other creative works (i.e. literature, visual arts, film, etc.). When you write a song, 17 USC § 106 grants you specific, exclusive rights to that song:
(1) to reproduce;
(2) to arrange;
(3) to distribute;
(4) to perform;
(5) to display (visual works);
(6) in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.
You can also find copyright law in hundreds of court decisions interpreting Title 17. Those cases usually involve copyright infringement, or the unauthorized use of someone’s copyrighted work. Over the years, we’ve seen some interesting cases involving high profile artists:
Bright Tunes Music Corp. v. Harrisongs Music, Ltd. (1976) – Does George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” rip off Ronald Mack’s “He’s So Fine” (made famous by the Chiffons)? Harrison didn’t think so. Three notes – same intervals, same rhythm, completely different lyrical context. The Court disagreed – Harrison infringed Mack’s copyright by employing Mack’s melody in his tune.
Campbell, aka Skyywalker, et al. v. Acuff Rose Music, Inc. (1992). – Did 2 Live Crew infringe Acuff Rose’s rights to the song “Oh, Pretty Woman” by recording a rap version involving the identical melody and lyrics of the hook? Four notes – same intervals, same rhythm, same lyrics. Infringement, right? Wrong. The Supreme Court of the United States agreed with the District Court that 2 Live Crew was entitled to fair use of the melody so long as it was being used to parody the original tune.
James Diamond v. John A. Gillis, et al. (2004). – Did producer/engineer Jim Diamond earn an ownership interest in the White Stripes’ first two released CD’s by virtue of his involvement as a producer without a contract? Perhaps, but unfortunately he waited too long and his case was dismissed primarily under a statute of limitations defense.
It is important to note that while copyright law is federal, contract law is state specific, so cases may involve elements of both federal and state law. Music copyright law generally involves the rights to musical compositions or to recordings of those compositions. Oftentimes musicians fail to recognize that these are two, distinct set of rights, so while a composer may own the rights to his/her song, a record company might own the rights to the recording of that song. The rights of successful songwriters are normally administered or held by publishing companies, while the rights of up-and-coming, or “launch pad” songwriters are held exclusively by the songwriter absent some other arrangement.
For the most part, music copyright law focuses on the sale and distribution of music and recordings through Internet downloads and traditional retail distribution (i.e. record stores),Internet and traditional broadcasts and live performances. Over the years, licensing has become a central part of music copyright law, whereby a copyright owner leases all or portions of a copyright to others for commercial use. As technology continually changes the means by which music is distributed and enjoyed (i.e. Internet streaming and downloads, ring tones, ring backs, etc.), the law has accordingly had to keep pace – see The Copyright Act of 1976, The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, The Copyright Royalty and Distribution Reform Act of 2004.
Check back for future posts regarding how to protect your music and copyright infringement.