Recent discussions of music copyright have largely focused on the Internet and file sharing issues. Significant U.S. copyright laws apply to the live performance of music, including the performance of cover songs, the recording of live performances and even playing recorded music in a place of business. Anyone who is hosting a live music concert or attending one with a camera phone should be aware of these laws.
The live performance of music in a commercial or public area requires a license from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). This applies to live concert performances, as well as playing CDs or even the radio. It applies to any and every business, including concert halls, bars, grocery stores and dentist offices. This license entitles the holder to play or perform any of the millions of songs in the ASCAP database. License fees are distributed to copyright holders. The annual rate for an ASCAP license depends on the size of the business.
It is illegal to record an artist's performance without the performer's permission. Copyright law provides for civil penalties for such recordings, even if made for private use. The sale or transfer of unauthorized live recordings for financial gain also carries both civil and criminal penalties. To make a legal recording of a live performance, it's best to get the permission of the artist, and possibly even the venue, as some concert halls have rules of their own forbidding such recordings. Even with the permission of the artist, a problem may arise if the artist covers a song by a different artist. The artist may have permission or license to play the work, but not to record or distribute it.
Recordings of live performances can actually be useful for copyright purposes. The U.S. Library of Congress has forms that can be submitted to copyright a work. Establishing a copyright, though, does not depend on use of these forms. A song is considered to be protected by copyright the moment it is written, as long as an artist can prove when that was. An artist can establish this proof by recording a live performance of a new song and uploading it to an Internet video site, such as YouTube, where it will be date-stamped.
Some music can be played without a license or permission. This includes music that falls under "public domain" as well as most music published under a Creative Commons License. Public domain pertains to music too old to be protected by copyright. However, recorded versions of that music will frequently still be protected by copyright. If a musician records a song in the public domain, that version of the song is considered the copyrighted property of the recording artist. Creative Commons was created as an alternative to copyright and allows artists to set their own rules for the use of their works.