Music Copyright

Fact sheet P-07: Music Copyright

Issued: 30th June 2004
Last amended: 24th April 2015

Exploring music copyright, and specific considerations that apply to song writers and composers.

  1. What copyright exists in music?

    There are principally 2 types of copyright to consider when we talk about music copyright.

    • The traditional ©, ‘C in a circle’ copyright, applies to the composition, musical score, lyrics, as well as any artwork or cover designs, as all of these are individually subject to copyright in their own rights, (though when you register, you can include them all in a single registration provided they have the same copyright owner(s)).
    • The second type of copyright applies to the sound recording itself, and is signified by the ‘P in a circle’ phonogram copyright symbol.

    How does this work?

    Suppose you want to record and sell your own version of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. This would not present a problem as Tchaikovsky has certainly been dead for over 70 years*, the work itself would now be out of copyright, and available as a work in the public domain. Provided you performed and recorded the work yourself, no infringement would have occurred. * Actual duration may vary due to national laws

    You would however be justifiably annoyed if someone else simply copied your recording and started selling it themselves. This is where the copyright in the sound recording comes into play. Copyright law recognises the problematic nature of this situation which is unique to sound recordings, and gives sound recordings distinct protection in their own right that is separate from that in the underlying work. The copyright in the sound recording will run for 50 years from the year of recording, or 50 years from date of release if released in that time. Again actual duration may vary slightly from one country to another depending on national laws.

  2. Using the work of others

    If you use samples of music by other authors in your work, ensure that you get permission to use the work before you attempt to publish or sell your work. Similarly, if you use loops or samples available via sample collections etc. ensure that these are licensed as free to use, or obtain permission first.

  3. Obtaining permission

    If you need to get permission to use a piece of music, normally the best place to start is with the last know publisher for the work. They will certainly know how to get permission to use the work, (as they must have permission themselves), so they will certainly know who you would need to contact.

    If the work is by an U.S. artist, you could contact the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc), or SESAC.

  4. Band members agreements

    Where music is written as a group effort, we recommend that you draw up an agreement to clarify issues, such as which rights belong to which member, and how royalties would be distributed in the event that members of your group leave.

    For successful commercial bands, incorporation is also an option. As with a normal incorporated company, the band members would own shares in the band/company. In this situation, a band member would typically sell his shares to the other members if he decided to leave.

  5. Does copyright protect a band name?

    Copyright does not apply to names, neither will it apply to single phrases or slogans. Names may however be regionally protected as a trademark which may be carried out via national patent and trademark offices. To qualify the name should be distinctive, not deceptive or contrary to law or morality, and not similar to previously registered band names.

  6. Public performance

    Clubs and venues will generally be licensed for public performance, the administration of this is carried out by various organisations throughout the world

Related information

Copyright symbols explained.

Band agreements.

Fact sheet P-03: Using copyright notices.

Fact sheet P-13: Seeking Permission.

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This fact sheet is intended only as an introduction to ideas and concepts only. It should not be treated as a definitive guide, nor should it be considered to cover every area of concern, or be regarded as legal advice.

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