Song Lyrics & Copyright Laws

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Copyright law protects all aspects of an artistic work, as long as the work is original and has been reduced to a tangible medium. Song lyrics, for example, are protected as soon as they are recorded, whether in audio or written form. Although you don’t need to register your song lyrics with the U.S. Copyright Office to enjoy copyright protection, registration makes it easier to prove that you wrote the lyrics before the infringer did and allows you to collect damages without proving economic harm.

Uploading and Downloading Music

The "first sale" exception to copyright law allows anyone to buy or sell a second-hand copy of a copyrighted work without paying royalties to the copyright holder. In other words, you can sell the CD you purchased to someone else without paying royalties. This doesn’t apply to downloading songs from the Internet, however, because downloading requires the creation of a new copy. Uploading and downloading music rarely falls within the "fair use" exception, either, because users typically upload and download entire songs rather than small portions. The Recording Industry Association of America, representing several large record labels, has filed hundreds of lawsuits against users who illegally upload and download music.

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The Digital Millennium Copyright Act

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, enacted in 1998, is designed to deal with the proliferation of interactive sites such as YouTube that allow users to upload material, including music, to the Internet. It shields these sites from legal liability for infringing material uploaded to their sites, as long as they institute a system that allows copyright holders to file complaints and have infringing material removed from the site. It does not shield the people who upload copyrighted material to these sites.

The "Fair Use" Exception

The fair use exception to copyright law allows anyone to publicly display a small portion of a copyrighted work for a socially beneficial purpose, such as commentary or education. This exception is ambiguous – whether or not a particular portion is small enough to fall within the exception is determined on a case-by-case basis and is based on a number of factors. This means that it is difficult to know for sure whether or not your use of copyrighted song lyrics is "fair" until you are sued for infringement and a verdict is rendered.

Parody and Satire

An artist might adapt someone else’s song lyrics for his own purposes, such as parody. The artist Weird Al Yankovic, for example, popularized many such adaptations in the 1980s. Even though parody is considered a legitimate use under the fair use exception, the work might still constitute an infringement if it relies on extensive portions of the original work, because copyright law prohibits the unauthorized adaptation of a copyrighted work. Although the law in this area is complex, the U.S. Supreme Court indicated in the case of Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music that a "fair use" defense is more likely to prevail in the case of parody (when the target of ridicule is the original work itself) than in the case of satire (when the adapted version uses the original work for the purpose of broader social critique).

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