Being a professional songwriter takes a lot of hard work and skill, but it also takes a lot of knowledge, and a little bit of luck. Among other things, it’s important to understand how the law affects you as a songwriter, whether you’re a professional, or trying to become one, or even if it’s just a hobby. Here are some of the basics that you’ll want to know about.
Copyright law can be confusing, but it’s extremely important to musicians and songwriters. First of all, as soon as you create something, you own the copyright on it. This is the simple part. As soon as your pen finishes drawing the last note, the song belongs to you. The difficult part is proving later that you were the one who created it.
You may have heard of the poor man’s copyright. This is where you mail a copy of the work to yourself, then keep it unopened. The idea is that if an issue arises in court, you can present the unopened envelope, which has been dated by the US postal service, to the judge to be opened. It makes sense, but unfortunately, it doesn’t often hold up in court. The solution? Just file for an official copyright. It costs a little more, but it’ll protect you and your work every time.
If you own a copyright on a song, you have an opportunity to earn money on it pretty much anytime anything is done with it, as long as you’re signed up with the appropriate organizations. Anytime a recording of your song is sold, a portion of that sale goes to you. Anytime sheet music for your song is sold or displayed for use, you have a right to some money. And of course, anytime the song is performed, you earn royalties for it. This is where it gets a little confusing.
When your song is preformed, the entity responsible for paying for the use of your song is actually the venue, not the performer. If your song is played on the radio, the radio pays for the use, and if your song is played live, the bar, theater, or arena pays for the license. If you haven’t picked up on it yet, this means that even if you perform your own song, the venue that you preformed in actually owes you money for the performance.
Of course, the money doesn’t go straight to you, it goes into a fund and then is distributed to all of the artists that have earned royalties, but in theory, you’ll see the money eventually.
A license is permission to perform someone else’s song. If someone plays something you have created, they generally must obtain a license from you, and if you want to play something you didn’t create, you have to do the same. In most cases, licensing is the option of the copyright owner, and is usually done in exchange for money. So if someone wants to use your song, you can either simply let them, you can charge them money in exchange for permission, or you can tell them they aren’t allowed to. Remember that all of this must be done officially, on paper.
But there is one big exception to all of this.
This is a particularly confusing part of music law. There is a situation when licensing does not need to be obtained. Even though a song is written by one artist and played by another, a license does not need to be obtained if the following conditions are met. The song must be preformed live. Radio performances and recordings don’t count. The song must have been performed before. The songwriter always retains rights to the first performance, unless they choose to give them up. And, the song must be preformed just like the original. This is a particularly fluid concept.
Generally, smaller details like instrumentation and style can be modified, but the progression, melody, and lyrics must remain the same. For example, using the chorus for one song in the live performance of another song would not qualify. Also, even if all of these conditions are met, while a license is not necessary, the royalties on the song still must be paid.
Music law can be a very confusing world, but it’s important for songwriters to know what they’re getting into. Make sure you do your research before diving in. If you need more help, please don’t hesitate to contact us.