Make Your Music Your Property

Chances are you have heard a lawyer or a non-lawyer who has watched too much Boston Legal say: ‘you must protect your intellectual property’. But what is intellectual property and what does it have to do with music?

As a lawyer I hear a lot of legal terms bandied about in a context that isn’t, well, shall we say, remotely correct. Chief amongst the “mistakes” that the public makes is referring to band names or album titles or even lyrics as being trademarks; or a logo on a t-shirt as a copyright. It’s not an uncommon misconception, in fact, it’s almost right.

Everyone has seen that little symbol somewhere: (c) or a ©. The copyright symbol’s purpose is to provide notice to the rest of the world that the work that you are looking at belongs to someone else and not you. So how do you get the right to place that symbol on your cd jacket, artwork or lyric sheet?

A copyright is the exclusive right granted to the individual that has created a specific tangible piece of work. I just wrote that and I don’t really understand it, so let me try to make sense of my own thoughts. The minute you write a lyric on a piece of paper or on a computer, you have created an exclusive right to that work which is called a copyright. That means that lyric is yours and no one can use it without asking you first. This is known as a “common law” copyright. There are laws (statutes) which allow you to actually submit your work (the lyrics to a song) to the United States Copyright Office and register it thereby putting the entire world on notice that you are the owner of the work and giving you some great rights to sue people who try to use your work without your permission (known as copyright infringement).

How do copyrights apply to music? Here’s an over simplified example: Alicia Keys writes a new song and Pharrell composes the music for it. The song is recorded and released by her label, J Records. A video is shot by Spike Jones and new website is created to sell the song, video and ringtone for Alicia and her label. This process, for just one song, has created these following copyrights: 1. copyright to Alicia for the lyrics to the song; 2. copyright to Pharrell for the composition of the music which accompanies the music; 3. copyright to J Records (who likely owns Alicia’s music) for the sound recording (the music with the lyrics); 4. copyright to Spike Jones for creating and recording the video for the song; 5. copyright to the web site designer who created the site for Alicia; and so on and so on. I think you get the picture.

If everyone involved in this example has the right management and legal team on their side, copyright applications were submitted and registered for every aspect of this one song. It may sound like a lot of mumbo jumbo, but its crucial to prevent someone from stealing your music. Just as you protect your personal property with locks, safes, insurance or alarm systems, you should do the same for your music. Understanding your intellectual property rights will not only protect your work but will ensure that you get paid for it.

Stay tuned for another rough example involving Trademarks.

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