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How to Copyright Music – 5 Tips to Better Understand Music Copyright Law

Tip 1: Defining Musical Works
Before we look at how to copyright music, let’s define what a musical work is in the eyes of music copyright law.

The Canadian Copyright Act defines musical works as: “any work of music or musical composition, with or without words, and includes any compilation thereof.”

However, laws are rarely straightforward, so to make matters a little more complicated, some forms of musical works might also be registrable as Sound Recordings or Performers’ Performances.

In order to establish in which category your musical work should be registered, determine exactly what you are trying to protect.  Some examples:  (a) lyrics only: literary work; (b) musical composition in any format: musical work; (c) a specific recording of a song: sound recording; (d) if you are a singer, your specific recorded performance of a song: performer’s performance.

Tip 2: How to Copyright Music According to Music Copyright Law – The First Step to Copyright Protection

Now that you have determined your category, let’s look at the first step on how to copyright music.

A common misconception is that people need to pay a third party to copyright their music.
However - the exclusive right of copyright (including the rights to produce, reproduce, distribute and publish the work) is automatically granted under the Copyright Act to the author of a work once it is put in a fixed form.

In other words, when you record an original musical composition that you created onto a CD, it is copyrighted and you own the rights. However, unless you can prove you are the original creator of the musical work, you may run into expensive and time-consuming legal problems defending your work in the event of infringement.

Therefore, the key to improved protection for your music is registering your work.

To Minimize the Vulnerability of your Songs – Follow These 4 Simple Steps:

  1. Put your music into a fixed form (for example, CD, DVD, paper, etc.).  This is absolutely critical!
  2. Register your music with a third party that provides a time-stamped registration certificate.  This certificate provides protection and proof against infringers, as it provides evidence of the day and time you submitted your work.  It’s best to register your music as soon as it is finished.
    *Note: do not rely on the ‘Poor Man’s Copyright Method’ (i.e., registered mail, emailing yourself) because it is highly unlikely to hold in a court of law.
  3. Keep a copy of your registration certificate in the event infringement occurs. This is a key piece of evidence used to prove you were the original creator of the music.
    *Note: some online copyright registration services will hold a copy of your work and your registration certificate so you don’t have to.
  4. In the case in which more than one person is involved in authoring the song, keep all documentation/contracts stating who contributed what “portion” or aspect of the work.

Tip 3: Copyright Service for Music – Do your Research
Copyright law requires you to prove ownership of your work if you wish to proceed in a claim against an infringer. There are a number of copyright services available (Government, Associations, Online, etc.); however, many can be expensive and may not protect your music for the life of copyright (unless you renew your membership).

When searching for a copyright service for music, ensure you understand the terms by which they will register your work.  Some questions you should ask:

  • Is there a membership fee?
  • Are there renewal fees to maintain the registration?
  • Is the protection for the life of copyright?
  • When will you receive your time-stamped registration certificate?
  • Can you access your registered music or your registration certificate anytime?
  • Where is the copy of your music kept?  Do you send a hard copy or an electronic file?
  • If it’s an online copyright service, can you have a free trial?
  • Do courts of law recognize (or are they likely to recognize) the validity of the information gathered on the certificate?

Music Copyright Cost – Keep an Eye Open for Hidden Expenses
The cost of copyright registration can vary dramatically.  It can range from as little as $4 per song to $60 per song.
When evaluating your copyright service for music, ensure you know all costs – fixed and re-occurring.  As well, keep an eye out for membership fees or renewal fees that must be paid for your registration to remain valid.  An important question to ask yourself is: Would I rather pay $10 now to protect my work, or much more in court to defend it?

Tip 4: buying rights to music
To buy rights to music, one must contact the owner of the copyrighted music because that owner has the exclusive right to transfer, license or otherwise deal with all or some of their copyright.   A binding assignment or licence must generally be put in writing and must be signed by the owner or the owner’s authorized agent.

To contact the music copyright owner, or the person representing the copyright owner you can:

  1. See if they have included their name with the copyright symbol on their work
  2. Search if they have a website
  3. Contact a copyright collective focused on music
  4. If the work is published, you can contact the publisher in an effort to find the owner of the copyright
  5. Contact a lawyer who specializes in searching for copyright owners

Tip 5: Copyright Free Music – What it is

Any music that is put in a fixed form is “copyrighted” under most world-wide music copyright law.  Therefore, there really isn’t any ‘copyright free music’. However, some artists choose not to exercise their exclusive rights and will let others use their music without a license fee or royalty fee.  In many cases, all they ask is for recognition that it is their work.  By simply searching the net, you can find either individual artists who allow the use of their work, or companies who sell music on behalf of others.

While there isn’t necessarily ‘copyright free music,’ there is something called the public domain.  A work falls into the “public domain” only when its term of copyright protection has expired.  A work in the public domain is no longer subject to the terms of copyright and can be used freely without permission.  Before using a work, it is imperative that you can prove the work is in the public domain, or you could be infringing on someone’s rights.  A work is generally in the public domain after the life of the author, the remainder of the calendar year in which the author dies  and for 50 or 70 (depending on the country where the copyright originated)  years following the end of that calendar year.  These terms may increase in the future.  An example of a work in the public domain is Shakespeare’s play ‘Hamlet’.  Anyone can reproduce this play without obtaining permission.

Kate Henderson is an Entertainment and Intellectual Property lawyer who reviewed this Copyright Creators article. The above is meant as a general guide to further your copyright knowledge and does not constitute legal advice.  For questions about your specific work, you should consult a copyright lawyer in your country.

Copyright Creators (www.copyrightcreators.com), a service inspired by the shortfalls of ‘poor man’s copyright’.  Copyright Creators protects copyright for life with no membership or renewal fees.  Visit Copyright Creators today and you’ll receive 4 free registrations to protect & create proof of your copyright online.

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