by Stephanie L. Carlin
Everyone knows the word: "copyright." The word looms in the hallways of Berklee like a wisp of wind and the minute it's uttered, the world turns silent and chilling. Not really, but for most musicians, copyright is a scary topic that can disrupt your creative flow and possibly get you in deep trouble for something you may have not even intended. So, while I am not a music business major per se, I've invested some time during my senior year learning some things about copyright and music law that I think will help some writers and performers out there who may find copyright completely polarizing.
Copyright is a Form of IP
IP stands for "Intellectual Property." Intellectual Property is an idea that is made into a physical form in some way. It's one thing to have an idea for a song but it's another to put it on paper or record that song in a studio. Then, the song is protected from the public domain until 70 years after you die. Seriously. Copyright law has existed since 1790 when the first act was passed in the U.S., and back then, the minute you manifested your map, book, or printed work, you were guaranteed only 14 years of protection before the public could do whatever it wanted to it. Thanks to the Copyright Renewal Act of 1992 and the acts before it, the laws are constantly being updated to keep up with technology and corporate needs, even recently with The Music Modernization Act.
Register Your Work
While you may have the rights of exclusivity the minute you make your music, it's only registering your song or recording that gives you the right to enforce the law, if necessary. Depending on how much you make, you may have to register the composition and the recording because those are two different types of copyright (someone may have acquired permission to perform your composition on an album, but they own their own recording of said composition). By registering your copyright, you can hold those accountable who infringe upon your song and you're telling the law and the public that your song was made at this time versus a similar song made at later time.
Just in case it's not clear, let me drive this point home: YOU CAN ONLY TAKE ACTION AGAINST INFRINGEMENT IF YOU REGISTER THE SONG FOR COPYRIGHT. If you think you're ready to register your recording or sheet music, feel free to click here and do it today.
Watch Your Melody and Lyrics
So, what can you sue for if it comes to that? Well, I mentioned that there are two different kinds of copyright when it comes to music: the composition and the recording. The composition consists of music and lyrics while the recording concerns who's performing, what studio the composition was recorded in, the arrangement, what instruments were used and so forth.
Most of the time when we hear about lawsuits, it's concerning the composition because of infringement of melody and lyrics and contract violations. They're the easiest to prove fault. Some of the most famous cases concern everything from "Phantom of the Opera" to "Stairway to Heaven," a case that still continues to this day.
In these cases, the plaintiff will try to prove that the defendant had access to the composition in some way and use evidence such as transcriptions to draw comparisons. Sometimes, it's settled. Sometimes, it's thrown out. Sometimes, a song can be so popular that the jury will conclude that the defense had access, whether they wrote their song subconsciously or not. Regardless, make sure your melody and lyrics aren't too similar to an earlier song if you're submitting it through a competitive market.
It's difficult to use over a groove or chord progression, especially when there are chord progressions that are used consistently in all genres of music like power chords (I-vi-IV-V). Of course, one of the most famous cases of all is the case between Marvin Gaye's estate and Robin Thicke, which had a verdict that suggested that if a groove is similar enough, it may be eligible for infringement. This case scares everyone, including me. It's important to note the distinctions of this particular case. For one, the groove of "Got To Give It Up" was recorded and written down but the musicians improvised a lot whereas "Blurred Lines" was programmed in a computer. It also doesn't help that Robin Thicke told GQ how much he loves this particular song by Marvin Gaye, while in the studio with Pharrell. That pretty much put the final nail in the coffin for this case.
I hope this article, while a little dry compared to others, shined a light on solutions to the anxiety you may have about copyright. These laws aren't meant to stifle creativity. Rather, they exist to protect you, the young artist, and by better understanding it, I hope you can create more music. Sometimes it's good and sometimes it's annoying but it's there for a reason and the reason is art.