Music copyright: 6 things everyone should know

Francesca Treadaway from our friends at The ISM gives us the inside track on copyright for musicians and songwriters...


Copyright can seem like a difficult and complex area of law for musicians.

But while it's true that there is much complexity in the detail, there are some key concepts which everyone can understand. These will help you as a musician, a performer or a composer, a recording artist or someone who makes their own recordings as well.

In today’s digital environment, copyright is even more important as there are so many ways in which works can be used. Licensing of copyright works can mean valuable sources of income, especially for composers, through sources such as radio plays, streaming, synchronisation to films and much more.

This is a very general overview, and not intended as a substitute for legal advice. Remember, you should contact a SUITABLE LAWYER for legal advice. ISM student members can seek advice from our legal team on copyright and related matters.

Copyright protects your intellectual property: and that of other creatives

Copyright exists in law and gives creators and performers certain protection in the form of legal rights in relation to their creative works and performances. These works include songs (lyrics), artistic works such as photographs and illustrations, sound recordings and more, which we look at below.

Under copyright law, these works are considered to be your intellectual property (IP). Copyright law gives you a set of exclusive rights with which to control the use of IP. As with other forms of property, if someone else wants to use it, they need to ask your permission. 

Copyright lasts for 70 years from the end of the year of the songwriter’s death (or of the joint writers). Copyrights in musical and literary works can be passed down in a will, so the heirs of a commercially successful composer or author could benefit from royalty income for many years if the works continue to be performed, recorded and broadcast or made available via online. So it pays to make sure you know about your rights and can keep hold of as much as possible.

Permissions are needed to use your IP 

If you write music, you are the owner of the copyright, which grants you the exclusive right to decide what happens to your work. Here is an example of how it works.

If someone wants to make a recording of your composition, they will need your permission, in the form of a licence. In order to make copies into CDs or available as downloads, they need your permission for that too. If someone else wants to use this recording of your composition in a film or television programme, they will need to get your permission as well. They will also need to get the permission from the person who made the recording of your work, as the sound recording is protected by copyright as well.

If someone used your property without your permission, they may have infringed your exclusive rights. You may have grounds for legal action against them to stop them using it, or to pay you a licence fee to cover the use.

It works in the other direction too. If you want to make a recording of an existing composition, which is still protected by copyright, you will need to get the permission of the composer, or their publisher, or their representative. The composer or their representative may or may not agree, depending on the uses you want to make of your recording. 

If you go ahead and use someone else’s work without permission, you have potentially infringed their exclusive rights. In turn, you may be subjected to legal action to make you stop, or to make you pay a licence fee for the use.

This applies in broad terms to performers too: performers have the right to consent to any recording of their performance, and the right to control what happens to any recording of their performances. Permissions may also therefore be needed from performers.

You can also transfer (or assign, in legal terms) your copyright to other parties if you wish. This means that you are giving or selling all your rights in your work to the other party. They therefore take all the exclusive rights in the work, and you will have no further control over it. Think very carefully and get advice before assigning your rights: it may be better to agree to a licence which enables you to get your rights back after a certain period.

These concepts of ownership and permissions are also relevant to social media, and how you should approach uploading and sharing music written and performed by yourself and others. We touch on this further below.

What types of rights are there in music?

There are many different rights relevant to musicians, composers and performers:

  • copyright in a musical composition;
  • copyright in the lyrics (a literary work);
  • copyright in the typographical arrangement of a published musical score, that is, in a published edition of a work. This is usually owned by the publisher of the work;
  • copyright in the sound recording of a musical work;
  • performers’ rights in their performance;
  • performers also have the right to “equitable remuneration” if their recorded performance is played or broadcast in public;
  • moral rights of composers and performers to be identified as the composer or performer of a work. You also have the right to object to any derogatory alterations to your work or performance and (for composers only) to object to any false attributions of works to you.

The exclusive rights in these works can be summarised as follows:

  • to copy the work,
  • to issue copies to the public,
  • to rent or lend the work,
  • to perform, show or play the work in public,
  • to communicate the work to the public
  • to make an adaptation, or do any of the above in relation to an adaptation of the work.

Under the main piece of UK copyright legislation – The Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 (as amended), the first owner of copyright in a qualifying work is the author or creator of it. Qualifying works include original musical works, dramatic works, literary works and artistic works.

Do I have to register my works to get copyright protection?

No, it is not necessary to register your works anywhere for copyright protection to arise. But musical and literary works need to be original,  and also need to be ‘fixed’ in order for copyright protection to subsist: this means you need to write the music or lyric down in some form (it does not matter how: in standard notation, on a computer programme, in diagram form, recorded into your mobile phone, etc.).

But it is worthwhile using a copyright credit on your work to identify that you are the owner of the copyright where possible: use the copyright symbol followed by your name and the year, e.g. © Jane Smith 2017 and place this on your score or lyric. If you own rights in sound recordings too, make sure you use the symbol ℗ along with your name and the date to show you own the rights in the recording: put this on your recording sleeve or cover artwork and also on the CD or disc itself.

Get help managing some of your rights

Join PRS for Music

If you write music, you should consider joining copyright collecting society PRS for Music.

PRS for Music represents composers and publishers of musical works. It pays royalties to its members when their work is performed, broadcast, streamed, downloaded, reproduced, played in public or used in film and TV. Find out more

Taking a video at a gig? Social media and copyright

Technology makes it so easy to record a live concert on your mobile phone and upload it online. Or you could take some recordings of your favourite music and post them on a social media platform such as YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo and many others.

Is it legal?

If you look again at the types of works protected by copyright, you will realise quickly that in general the answer is likely to be no. This is because it is probable that you will not have the necessary permissions from the songwriters to copy their works in your concert  recording, or to distribute those copies via social media. You may also be infringing the performers’ rights too.

If you create your own video and put an existing recording to it, it is likely that you will also be infringing a record company’s rights in their sound recordings in addition to any rights in the music itself.

Just because a media platform allows you to upload your recording does not mean it is legal to do so. In the terms and conditions you agree to when you join something like Facebook, you agree that you are not infringing the rights of any third party. Nevertheless, if you record and/or upload without permission, it is likely you are infringing someone’s rights.

Will you be sued by a composer or an artist, or a record company? It is possible. More likely is that the owners of the rights will simply ask the internet platform you posted to remove your content because it is infringing their rights, though there are some instances of record companies taking action against individual. You should be aware of the risks when deciding how to engage with social media.

Visit the UK government's website for further information about copyright and related rights. .

The main law in the UK relating to copyright is the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988. Find out more

Read the ISM's previous blog article on the challenges and opportunities facing new musicians, artists and songwriters in 2018. 

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February 6, 2018
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