So, what is music copyright? Basically, it’s the protection of original songs, to ensure the owner has a say over who can use their track and can claim what’s rightfully owed. In other words – making sure no-one steals your shit!
What most musicians don’t know is that as soon as you have written something it is automatically copyrighted. If you rewrite it ten times, each version is separately copyrighted. But the problem isn’t having copyright, the problem is proving the copyright. You have to be able to prove that you wrote that song, at that time – that means you need to record and clearly date your music . Back in the day, when everything was recorded onto tape, there was no timestamp – so people actually used to have to send a copy of the tape to themselves, so that it would have a date and time. Luckily, times have moved on and when you record something digitally, it will have a timestamp – meaning proving copyright is now easier than ever. Yay!
But what can you actually copyright?
Lyrics, melodies, songwriting and recordings are all good. You can’t copyright chord progressions (most of the time, depending on how complicated they are), song titles or concepts.
However, with the emergence of the internet and social media, these copyright laws now have slightly blurred lines… no pun intended! You might say that surely, copyright law was designed to protect our creativity from blurred lines – but actually, that isn’t true. Copyright law was first introduced specifically to tackle censorship issues. After the invention of the printing press, it suddenly became easier to print and distribute whatever you wanted, introducing the problem of so-called “fake scripture.” Henry VIII was not happy about this (was he ever happy?!) and so instigated the first copyright law – everything written had to go through his council before it was allowed to be printed.
Cut to – 1557, and Queen Mary I was getting slated by the press. Now, Mary was not a bitch you messed with – she had over 280 people killed during her reign. Her solution this time though, was to start the London Company of Stationers, an in-house censorship bureau which had say over what could and could not be printed.
Fast forward a few hundred years, and you have our current copyright legislation, based on the foundation of those two laws. Our current laws are still pretty outdated, and don’t always account for grey areas like Youtube, Facebook, Instagram and Soundcloud.
How much of a song can be used before copyright kicks in?
This is a matter of subjectivity but if it were to go to court, it comes down to the “ordinary observer test” where basically, if the man on the street listens and says ‘these two are the same thing’, then you’re in trouble.
How long does copyright last?
Your copyright lasts until 70 years after your death. Meaning that any money made from your music after you die will still go to your estate. Also, who cares? You’ll be dead!
So how does copyright permission work? Can you record a cover without permission?
Yep! and sell as many as you want!! However you do need a mechanical license, but if you use a digital distribution service like DistroKid, they do the hard work for you, acquiring a license for a minimal fee.
How does the royalty split work on copyrighted material?
Every song is split into two things – publishing and masters. The publishing is lyrics, melody and composition, while the master is the recording and the performance.
If I write a song, sit with my acoustic guitar and record it, then post it to Youtube, I own 100% of both the publishing and the masters. If you then cover my song, you will own the master but I still own the publishing. If you were to co-write a song, you can split the royalties however you choose, as long as its clearly documented from the outset.
What about sampling?
Ah, now weirdly enough this is different because this isn’t a publishing issue, it’s a master issue. Not who owns the song but who owns the recording. If you want to use part of a song you will need a sample license from the person who owns the master. The owner gets to decide whether to grant permission and can say no! Also, they can literally name their price to use their work.
Do I need to officially copyright or can I rely on Youtube?
Technically you can rely on Youtube, however it’s not the best practice in case something goes wrong with the platform. If you want to be more official and make sure you are squeaky clean you can register with the US copyright office in America, or in the UK and Europe you could potentially look to sign up for PRS as a collection service.
But you want to know about the money!
So, royalty splits are different depending on whether they’re for music sales or music syncs (when your music is used in, for example, an advert or a video game). For music sales, it’s a mechanical royalty, meaning whoever owns the masters gets around 90% and whoever owns the publishing owns 10%. Sync royalties are different, and usually tend to be a 50/50 split – so this is where songwriters begin to cash in.
And how do you get this money?
Well, if your music is on a streaming service like Spotify or Apple music, then the distribution company will collect the royalties and send them to you. For all other collections you need to sign up to a collection service – like PRS For Music in the UK and ASCAP or BMI in the US. These companies collect royalties from music being used anywhere else.
That’s everything you need to know! Whilst it may seem complicated, the main thing is to make sure you document and timestamp everything. From the lyrics and music, through to the ownership percentages.