Songwriting Copyright: What It’s Worth
What It’s WorthBy Brian K. Carvell, Esq. Originally Published In DRUM! Magazine's May 2008 Issue
For years now I have been stressing the importance of obtaining a copyright for your work. In prior columns, I have explained how a copyright protects your work, what your rights are in the event that someone else violates your copyright, and most importantly, that the ’poor man’s copyright’ (mailing a copy of your recorded work to yourself in a sealed envelope) does not afford any real protection. However, it occurred to me that I have never actually addressed what rights the copyright owner has in his or her own work.
The rights bestowed upon the owner of a copyright owner are set forth in the Copyright Act of 1976, which grants control (akin to a limited ownership) to authors of original works. This control permits the author to benefit financially from others’ exploitation of the work.
First and foremost, the copyright owner has the right to reproduce the work. Obviously, this is the most important right that a copyright owner has, as it gives you the sole right to make money off of your own creation. You also have the right to sell the copyright to another party. A copyright is a piece of property, albeit intangible, and like any other piece of property you own, you do have the right to sell it, if you so choose. Along the same lines, the copyright owner also has the right to distribute the work, either by sale to the public, or by other agreement (such as use on a movie soundtrack, use in a video game, and so on.). Be sure to understand that you have the right to 1) reproduce the work, and 2) distribute the work. These are two closely related but different rights, and it is key to understand the distinction between the two.
You have the right to perform the protected works publicly. This is where ASCAP and BMI come into play. While you do own this exclusive right, the enforcement of it is not a realistic possibility. As such, it makes complete sense to register your work with one of the performing rights organizations, who monitor the public performance of the works that are registered with their respective organization, and then compensating the artist for such a performance.
A copyright owner also has the right to prepare “derivative” works, which is a legal term meaning other works that are based on yours. For example, I cannot take the song “Imagine,” change a few words around and claim it to be my own song. It would be considered a derivate work and I would need permission from The Beatles to release such a song (and permission almost always means money). However, be advised that a parody is not considered a derivate work, and therefore no permission is needed. The reason is because it is supposed to remind the listener of the original work and is not intended to be considered a new original compensation. So now that everyone knows even more about copyright law, you can take the steps necessary to protect your art. You will thank me for it down the road if you are ever dealing with a copyright infringement case.
This article is not intended as legal advice. Please contact an attorney for your specific concerns.