Musicians’ Union Q&A – Copyright

Your Questions To The Musician’s Union In the first of what we intend to be a long running web-feature we are going to be quizzing the generous folks at the Musicians’ Union about all manner of essential knowledge for today’s modern music maker. In our first installment we’re going to be asking a series of […]

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Your Questions To The Musician’s Union

In the first of what we intend to be a long running web-feature we are going to be quizzing the generous folks at the Musicians’ Union about all manner of essential knowledge for today’s modern music maker. In our first installment we’re going to be asking a series of questions concerning that most vital legal consideration to the professional artist. Copyright.

Copyright is a fundamental legal precept and it’s integral for those who generate unique, competitive content to have their rights firmly understood. There are many out there who harbour ambitions of being a professional musician but know little about the law when it comes to ownership of their creative works.

We sat down with Ben Jones (National Organiser, Recording and Broadcasting) from the Musicians Union to quiz him about everything you should know when it comes to copyright.

Ben Jones

How important do you think copyrighting your music is in the modern music world for aspiring professional artists 

Very. Copyright is essentially the right to prevent copying, but actually comprises a bundle of rights that enable the copyright owner to prevent or authorise the use of their copyright work.

In the UK the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (as amended) (“the Act”) gives a copyright owner the means to protect his copyright work by making it an infringement of copyright:

  • to copy the work,
  • to issue copies to the public,
  • to rent or lend the work,
  • to perform, show or play the work in public,
  • to communicate the work to the public
  • to make an adaptation, or do any of the above in relation to an adaptation of the work.

Under the Act the first owner of copyright in a qualifying work is the author or creator of it. Qualifying works include original musical works, dramatic works, literary works and artistic works.

In the UK, copyright comes into existence when a work is created and recorded, in writing or otherwise. So a song idea in your head does not acquire copyright, and therefore copyright protection, until the music (a musical work) and lyrics (a literary work) are written down, recorded onto a tape or disc, saved onto a computer, etc.

Where do you begin if you want to copyright your material? And how does the Musicians’ Union help in that regard?

Copyright in a song

Copyright exists in each of the following elements of a song or composition:

  • the music, including the melody (a musical work);
  • the lyrics (a literary work);
  • the typographical arrangement of the score;
  • a new arrangement, or adaptation, of an existing musical work (but, as above, making an adaptation of someone else’s copyright work is an infringement, unless it is made with their permission).

The copyright in a song is usually, but not always, divided 50% music/melody and 50% lyrics.

How copyright is to be shared between co-writers should be negotiated and agreed in writing when the work is created to avoid argument later.   The MU has a simple one page song-share agreement for use by members to formally agree the division of copyright in a new musical work.

How long does copyright last?

Copyright in musical and literary works, e.g. songs, compositions, lyrics and arrangements, lasts for 70 years from the end of the year in which the author dies (or where there are co-authors 70 years from the end of the year in which the last author dies).

As well as the copyright in the song/composition, the following rights exist in recorded music:

Copyright in a sound recording.  

The term of copyright is 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the recording is made, or if published (meaning copies are issued to the public), before the end of that period, 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which it is first published or if during that period it is not published, but is made available to the public by being played or communicated to the public, 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which it is first made available.

Communication of the sound recording to the public includes broadcasting or making it available to the public by electronic means in such a way that members of the public may access it from a place and at a time individually chosen by them (e.g. online),  but in determining whether a sound recording has been published, played in public or communicated to the public, no account is taken of any unauthorised act.

This 50 year period is due to be extended to 70 years by November 2013.   The first owner of copyright in a sound recording is whoever made the arrangements necessary for the recording to be made, often the record label.

Sound recordings will soon have a copyright lifespan of 70 years

Performers’ rights: Both featured artists, usually contracted to a label, and non-featured artists (e.g. session players) have performers’ rights. The performer’s rights in their recorded performance expire when the copyright in the recording expires.

If someone wishes to use a recording or part of it, for example in an advert or film, or as a sample, they must clear all three sets of rights; in the words, in the music, and in the recording.

What are the technicalities of copyright? cost and/or registration?

Copyright is automatic in the UK and no registration is necessary.   However, you may wish to consider taking the following steps to prove that you own your original musical works:

Use a copyright credit:  © Joe Bloggs 2012  on your lyric sheet or music score. This identifies these works as your own. On a CD cover or CD sleeve/booklet this credit refers to the artwork, photos, cover design and any other copyright material on the cover/sleeve/booklet. It does not refer to the songs, which are usually credited with wording such as “All songs written by XXXX and published by YYYY”. A “P” in a circle denotes copyright in a sound recording (“P” stands for phonogram)  so should appear on your CD cover, CD sleeve, and if possible on the CD itself – (P) Joe Bloggs 2012.

Registered post:  send works to yourself by registered post or Special Delivery, ensure there is a date stamped on envelope, keep sealed and file securely.

Copyright Registration:  The MU offers a free Copyright Registration Service for its members.   We give you a registration number and can verify we received work on a certain date.

As well as copyright, the creator of an original musical, literary, dramatic or artistic work has moral rights. Songwriters and composers have the following moral rights:

  • The paternity right. The right to be identified as the author of the work, although this right must be asserted in writing before it is enforceable.
  • The integrity right. The right to object to derogatory treatment of your work.   ‘Treatment’ means an addition to, deletion from, or alteration or adaptation (and an arrangement or orchestration is an adaptation) of the work.  A treatment is “derogatory” if it amounts to a distortion or mutilation of the work, or is prejudicial to the honour or reputation of the author.
  • False attribution. The right not to have a work falsely attributed to you.

Performers also have moral rights: the paternity right (although again this right needs to be asserted in writing before it is enforceable) and the integrity right.

Moral rights can be waived in a contract so seek advice from the MU before signing any agreement.

Can you explain how copyright can be shared between two or more co-writers/performers, and how do you work out who *owns* what?

The composer of the music and the writer of the lyrics are the first owners of copyright in them. If you co-write, agree with your co-writers how the copyright and income generated by the songs will be divided. If you are in a band, agree whether the songs are a partnership asset of belong solely to the writers.

If a song is co-composed, the MU advises all contributors to sign and date a short agreement setting out the name of the song, the names of the contributors and their respective shares in the song, and whether that share is in respect of words only, music only, or words and music, e.g. Max Smith 25% (words)/Zoe Jones 75% (words/music).

In the modern age online collaboration is becoming more and more common, be sure to formally agree on your percentage share of the track before you begin

Without a song share agreement (available to MU members) a publisher or the courts may infer equal contributions, and the potential for dispute between contributors (e.g. if the song writing partnership splits up) is greatly increased.

Do you think that the boundaries are shifting somewhat, with torrent websites illegally distributing digital copies of albums – how has that influenced copyright?

I do not think that file sharing has ‘influenced’ copyright, but it has reiterated its importance.   The majority of content shared via torrent sites is clearly copyrighted material (for example, commercial audio recordings/works owned/controlled by record companies/publishers and registered with PPL and PRS For Music), but I do not think the boundaries are shifting – it has just unfortunately become a lot easier to illegally share content in the last 5-10 years.

Thank you for talking to us Ben, we’re going to be continuing our Musicians’ Union Q&A  in a fortnight with everything you need to know about licensing your music. If you would like to ask a question regarding licensing then please EMAIL US and we’ll be sure to include your questions – The MU do stress that they can only answer general questions regarding the topic. They provide detailed advice as required to members on individual basis.

If you’d like to join the MU then click here,  for further details then read on

About the Musicians’ Union

The Musicians’ Union has been protecting the rights and interest of working musicians for over a hundred years and 30,000 professional and student musicians currently benefit from the MU’s comprehensive range of services.

These include career and business advice, rights protection, free instrument insurance, free contract and partnership advice, £10 million public liability cover, legal advice and assistance, plus access to a network of musicians of all ages across the UK.

For anyone serious about being a working musician, whether in the live arena, in the recording world, as a teacher or writer/composer, the MU gives musicians a voice – individually and collectively – to help nurture and improve the industry and to ensure that every member has the support and protection they need.  More info:  Follow the MU on Twitter:


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