Copyright Laws in Music

••• Photo by Thomas Hawk (Flickr)

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The fight between musicians, the recording industry and peer-to-peer (P2P) networks has brought music copyright laws into stark relief. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and bands like Metallica attacked P2P websites like Napster for distributing music without the permission of artists. The debate rests on the perception of fairness, with musicians interested in lost earnings and fans interested in finding affordable music. As the Internet becomes the primary source for fans to find new music, everyone involved in the music industry should learn about their rights under American copyright laws.

Duration of Copyright Protection

Musicians and conductors are given copyright protection automatically after their work has been made available for public consumption. A song produced for personal or noncommercial purposes can be protected for up to 70 years after the creator's death with an approved copyright application. Recording labels and musicians can protect work for hire or commercial music for up to 95 years by applying for copyrights. Writers, movie producers and web designers must request permission to reproduce music from copyright holders unless they use public domain music. Public domain music is anything created before 1923 that has not been protected in perpetuity by its owners and descendants.


Musicians benefit from applying for copyrights through the U.S. Copyright Office when it comes to copyright infringement cases. The U.S. Copyright Office maintains a publicly available list of copyrights and their owners that can be consulted before music is used for commercial purposes. If a musician offers a permanent address and contact information, she can avoid infringement cases by allowing easy access for suitors who want to use protected songs. Artists who pursue legal action against infringers may be able to recoup legal fees as well as damages if courts find in their favor.

Costs of Copyright Protection

The U.S. Copyright Office charges different rates to musicians who use paper and online applications. Filing a paper application costs $45 for each copyright application, with albums and music collections lumped into one application to reduce the costs of copyright registration. Recording labels and entertainment lawyers can save their clients money by paying $35 per electronic application.

Examples of Musical Copyright Infringement

Musical copyrights are broken when fans and fellow artists fail to ask permission when using protected art. A rapper can pursue legal action against P2P networks and MP3 websites that leak his new album to the world. This artist stands to lose a portion of his income as fans download albums without paying a record store or label. Movie studios, TV shows and websites that use rock music without consulting their creators can be sued for copyright infringement. Musicians can claim that their art is being used in commercial ventures that earn money for copyright violators. Another legitimate claim is that a musician may not approve of the artistic direction or message of a movie, which can damage the musician's reputation and marketability.

Fair Use Exemptions

U.S. copyright law offers exemptions to protected works in cases of fair use by critics, writers and teachers. A music critic can include a snippet of a new song in an online review of an upcoming album. College professors and grade school teachers can use music in classes without being subjected to copyright infringement lawsuits. Comedians and satirists can use the music or alter the lyrics to copyright-protected music as long as the intent is not to harm the artist's ability to make money. These distinctions are often difficult to measure without the assistance of an attorney or judge, leading to many court cases dealing with the issue of fair use.


About the Author

Nicholas Katers has been a freelance writer since 2006. He teaches American history at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wis. His past works include articles for "CCN Magazine," "The History Teacher" and "The Internationalist" magazine. Katers holds a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in American history from University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, respectively.

Photo Credits

  • Photo by Thomas Hawk (Flickr)