Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Music Law, No. 2

So you and the band have finally cut some tracks. Maybe it’s a demo in a good local studio or you caught your patented live magic on tape at a recent show. You’ve got a copy in every car you ride in, and you’re loving hearing it on tape. Then you pull up at a stoplight one day and hear your tunes coming out of the car next to you. You’ve been pirated!

For many local bands, the notoriety of having a tape (do people still use tapes?) passed around wouldn’t be a bad thing. One of the biggest initial problems is spreading the word and getting people to know who you are (and come to shows). Few marketing devices work better than free samples of your hottest tracks. But there comes a point (for most acts) when free distribution isn’t cutting it. Either it is reducing the profits from a CD you are trying to market, or else someone is ripping off your songs and playing them as their own. That’s why it’s important to understand copyright and your legal interest in the music you produce. As always, this isn’t intended to be legal advice. Each situation is unique and if you have questions, you should seek out a professional in the area. The following is meant to be a primer on the basics of an area of law important to many creative artists.

Copyright, as a legal term, are the rights that you have as creator to control who uses your creation. The key point is when your idea, whether it is lyrics, music or both, into a “fixed into a tangible medium of expression.” If you write out your lyrics in a spiral-bound notebook, you’ve fixed them. The same with scratching out the musical notations for the new song on the back of a napkin at Aldo’s at 3am. And to make it more complicated (because it’s the law…if we didn’t make it complicated, you wouldn’t need lawyers, would you?), there’s a separate copyright for each performance that is fixed into some medium. Take a singer/songwriter strumming away on her acoustic guitar: she holds the copyright to the words and music she’s written down, and a separate copyright for the recorded performance of those words and music. This performance copyright attaches to each new recording. Now you might see why (well, one of thousands of reasons) the topic of royalties can become so complicated: the radio station pays a fee for the right to play the song, but then that amount is split between writers and performers. Take one of the more famous covers from my wayward college days: the 10,000 Maniacs “Because the Night” from MTV Unplugged. A copyright exists for the band, as performers, and for Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen, as the writers that put it on paper in the first place. (Ignoring, of course, any interest MTV had as producer of the show…we don’t want to get that complicated.)

So knowing you own the copyright is all well and good, but what does it mean? If someone’s stealing your material and you have to take them to court, a bunch of notebook pages with Guinness stains all over them don’t make the best proof. For this reason, many people have used the old fashioned method of mailing themselves a copy of the lyrics/music/tape. The unopened envelope, with a date stamped on it, is then saved in case there’s ever a need to prove authorship. The envelope would then be taken to court and opened there, proving no hijinks had occurred. This method, while spread by word of mouth, isn’t heartily endorsed by this lawyer. The same with putting the © mark on all your items. While this is a good idea, it isn’t required by law to have a copyright (remember, you have that just from writing it down) and, in itself, it lacks teeth. © away, but also consider registering your tape or demo with the US copyright office. Using a single form (Circular 56: Copyright for Sound Recordings) and paying a single fee, you can register your copyright on an entire CD, both performance and the underlying musical composition. Using other forms, you can register either/or the written or performed versions.

In closing, it’s important to realize that you already own a copyright to the works you’ve created. The next logical step is determining what to do about protecting those copyrights as you’re working to spread your music and build a reputation in the field. And as a final thought, this article © the Jamestown Lawyer, 2006.


Blogger Lana said...

Very interesting. It almost makes me think that a certain unnamed professor wasn't quite as crazy as I thought he was. Of course, the whole laughing debacle sort of confirms my original thoughts.

11:14 AM  
Blogger TMT said...

I'm going to deny everything.

7:45 PM  

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