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Like other forms of creative works, music is protected by the law of copyright. This is an automatic right that provides its owner with certain exclusive rights in his/her creativity. A single musical work can comprise multiple aspects of copyright in: the musical score, sound recordings, lyrics and music videos. This means that under the umbrella of “music”, more than one person may benefit from commercially exploitable rights.

Who owns the copyright in music?

Typically, the owner of musical content would be the person that created it. In the case of a musical score and lyrics, the first owner would be the person that effectively put pen to paper. In the case of a sound recording, the owner would be the producer. For a music video, the owners would be the producer and film director.

If the creator is an employee or director of a company then it is likely that copyright in any creative work developed by them in the course of their employment would be owned by the company.

How long does music copyright last?

The duration of copyright protection depends on the nature of the creative work. 

For the musical score and lyrics, the duration of protection is 70 years from the end of the year in which the author dies. 

For sound recordings, the duration of protection is 50 years from the end of the year in which the sound recording is made. However, if the sound recording is published during the initial 50-year period, the duration of protection is extended to 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the sound recording is published.

For music videos, the duration of protection is typically 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last of the following dies:

  • principal director
  • author of a screenplay
  • author of the lyrics
  • composer of the music

How do I copyright music?

As copyright is an automatic right, there is no official registration process for it in the United Kingdom. Copyright exists as soon as the work has been created. 

You should apply a copyright notice to any published, or publicly available, copy of the work. This should be in the form of © [AUTHOR NAME] [YEAR CREATED]. All Rights Reserved. 

You should also keep a record of the copyright-protected works that you own including details of the date created, versions and who created the work.

Some countries, notably the United States, do operate a voluntary registration system whereby depositing a copy of the copyright-protected work with the US Copyright Agency increases the range of damages available against an infringer.

What protection does copyright give me?

Copyright provides its owner with the exclusive right to undertake the following acts:

  • copying a copyrighted work
  • issuing copies of the copyrighted work to the public
  • renting or lending the work to the public
  • performing, showing or playing a copyrighted work in public
  • communicating the work to the public
  • making an adaptation of a copyrighted work or doing any of the acts listed above in relation to an adaptation

If your copyright-protected work is used without your permission, you would have the right to seek redress through the courts.

>> Download our free ebook: Your Essential Guide to Intellectual Property

How do I use my copyright to make money?

A copyright-protected work can be licensed in exchange for royalties or assigned. As copyright is considered as intangible property it has value and can be dealt with much in the same way as physical objects. 

A high-profile example of this concerns Taylor Swift and the rights to the master recordings for her first 6 albums. Ms Swift signed over the rights to a record label in the early days of her career. Since then, the rights to the master recordings have changed hands twice, most recently to the tune of $300 million. Importantly, Ms Swift is free to re-record the tracks as she retains publishing rights. 

This demonstrates the importance of agreeing appropriate terms when licensing or assigning any rights in music copyright.

How do I check if music is copyrighted?

You should assume that all publicly available music is copyrighted by someone. It would be necessary to identify the author and when they died to calculate the period of copyright existence. As discussed above, if the author died less than 70 years ago (in the case of a musical score, lyrics and film rights) it is highly likely that a licence would be required to use the music.

How does copyright affect the music industry?

Copyright underpins the entire music industry. Without copyright, there would be no protection for artists. If you are active in the music industry it is vital that you understand the rights which copyright protection affords you and others.

Wrapping up

Copyright gives the owner, the exclusive right to use a specific piece of work such as an audio, visual, or written material. Understanding copyright is fundamental to running a successful music business. 

Our IP lawyers can offer intellectual property legal assistance about copyrighting, from helping you understand what you own, to explaining how you can avoid using the copyrighted work of others.

Get legal assistance from LawBite

At LawBite, our copyright lawyers and solicitors are well-versed in providing copyright legal advice for various industries. Our copyright solicitors can help you quickly and cost-effectively to:

  • work out which copyrights you own or could own
  • provide copyright legal advice on how to protect your assets
  • help you maximise the commercial potential of your copyright
  • help you avoid infringing other people's copyright

Our copyright infringement solicitors in the UK also deal with contentious issues, including:

  • investigating suspected infringement of copyright in the UK
  • advising on the tests for determining what amounts to copying
  • explaining where the line is drawn between legal inspiration and illegal copying
  • helping you understand when and how the defences and fair dealing exceptions apply in the context of infringement claims

We are committed to helping you make the most of your copyrighted assets, whether that be through offering copyright legal advice or informing you of infringement regulations. 

Additional useful information

In closing

Nothing in this article constitutes legal advice on which you should rely. The article is provided for general information purposes only. Professional legal advice should always be sought before taking any action relating to or relying on the content of this article. Our Platform Terms of Use apply to this article.

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