Music copyright basics

Glenn W. Peterson

California is home to many musicians and other artists who wish to receive full credit for their works. The U.S. Copyright Office, a division of the Library of Congress, explains that as with any copyright, a music copyright is automatically secured the moment the music is written down or recorded. However, in order to get the most benefit from a copyright, it needs to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. The registration process is fairly easy. A person needs to fill out a form, submit a copy of the music and pay a fee.

Holding a copyright gives a person the exclusive right to sell, copy, distribute and publicly perform the music. In addition, the copyright holder has the right to create variations of the piece. The owner has to give specific permission to someone else who wants to do any of these things with the music. With a registered copyright, it is easier to fight infringement and provide solid proof of ownership in court.

Music copyright can get a little complex. As outlined by Washington State University, issues can arise from sampling and plagiarism that relate to copyright infringement. Sampling is often seen in hip-hop music, but a variety of genres are now using this method, which involves using just a small portion of an existing song, like a verse or sequence of notes. Because any use of another’s sound recording requires permission from the copyright holder, the court system recently ruled that sampling falls under this general rule.

Beyond sampling, there have been instances where a song sounds similar to another in melody or note progression. Sometimes this is done intentionally, but other times, it is done accidentally. Even so, intent may not make a difference, and a similar song may be ruled as plagiarism or copyright infringement.