A great melody can be valuable, either as the foundation for a smash pop single or as a catchy jingle that sticks in customers’ heads. Because of this, many business owners and songwriters fiercely protect their melodies with copyright law, although specifics of the law get complicated depending upon when the song was written or if it’s recorded.
Fixed Form Requirement
The U.S. Copyright Office only grants copyright to melodies that are secured in a fixed, tangible format. This may be a sound recording of a musician performing the melody or a sheet music transcription of the piece. Because of this, a melody you sing to yourself isn’t protected by copyright until you place it in a fixed form. You don’t need to register a melody with the U.S. Copyright Office to receive copyright protection once the melody is fixed, although owners of registered copyrights receive expanded protections to defend their melodies under U.S. copyright law.
Recorded Music vs. Musical Compositions
The U.S. Copyright Office recognizes two types of copyright claims for melodies. The first is the copyright of a musical composition, which recognizes the songwriter for creating the song. Melodies may be copyrighted as compositions if they’re fixed as sheet music or a recording. Sound recordings are sounds made at the actual recording sessions when a musician records a song. While a songwriter who writes and records a melody -- such as a performing musician recording an album -- can claim copyright on the composition and recording at the same time, a musician who records a song that another person wrote may only register the copyright on her sound recording.
Length of Copyright Term
The copyright on a melody isn’t secured forever, and eventually all copyright protections expire and the melody enters the public domain, where anyone is free to use it as he wishes. How long copyright protection extends to the melody depends upon when it was first published -- either as sheet music or released as a sound recording. Sound recordings made before Feb. 15, 1972, will enter the public domain by 2067. Melodies copyrighted since are protected for the songwriter’s lifespan plus 70 years.
Proving Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement
Some copyright cases involving melodies are straightforward, with parties using an entire melody or recording completely. Because of the limiting nature of the diatonic scale and common time signatures, copyright and plagiarism in music are difficult to prove in court. A songwriter must prove that the infringer had access to his song and purposefully made exact copies of large portions of the melody, rather than unintentionally and accidentally mimicking the melody, according to a 2008 article on the NBC “Today” website.
- U.S. Copyright Office: Copyright Basics
- U.S. Copyright Office: Copyright Registration of Musical Compositions and Sound Recordings
- Cornell University: Copyright Term and Public Domain in the United States, 1 January 2012
- Today: Joe Satriani May Have a Case Against Coldplay
- Artist House Music: The Composer's Dilemma -- Musical Influence Versus Plagiarism
Wilhelm Schnotz has worked as a freelance writer since 1998, covering arts and entertainment, culture and financial stories for a variety of consumer publications. His work has appeared in dozens of print titles, including "TV Guide" and "The Dallas Observer." Schnotz holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Colorado State University.