8 basic facts every musician should know about copyright law

You've worked long and hard on your original music. How can you keep others from using and profiting from your music without your consent? Here's what you need to know to protect yourself.

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.
updated May 11, 2023 ·  2min read

Any aspiring musician needs to know the basics of music copyright law. Musicians who work hard at their art risk loss of credit to music thieves unless they learn how to protect themselves and their creations.

Here are eight basic facts about copyright law every musician should know:

Man strumming guitar

1. Copyright protection is present at the creation

The moment you create your music is the moment copyright protection begins. Creation occurs when music and/or lyrics are recorded, set to paper, or otherwise "fixed in a tangible form," according to the U.S. Copyright Office.

2. To protect a copyright, the owner should register

While the copyright is formed when you create, you need more to go to court to enforce your rights.  In order to sue and claim damages, creators must own a copyright registered with the US Copyright Office.

3. A copyright establishes various rights for the owner

Some rights established by ownership of a copyright include the following:

  • To reproduce the work
  • To adapt or arrange the work
  • To perform the work
  • To display, distribute, and/or sell copies of the work
  • To incorporate the work with visual images
  • To license others to do any of the things listed above

4. Protection is for more than a lifetime

Generally, for published works created after Jan. 1, 1978, copyright extends for 70 years beyond the life of the author. If there is more than one author, the copyright usually extends to 70 years from the death of the last living author.

When musicians create work for corporations or limited liability companies, this is considered "work for hire," and the corporations or limited liability companies are the owners of the copyright for 95 years from its first publication or for 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.

5. For copyright purposes, a sound recording is separate from a composition

Generally sound recordings are copyrighted separately from the copyright of a musical composition as they are not considered the same work under copyright law.

6. Published and unpublished musical works may be copyrighted

Work does not have to be published anywhere in order to be copyrighted; even unpublished works are eligible for copyright protection.

7. Special rules apply to those who want to perform cover versions of copyrighted songs

For those who want to perform a cover version of a copyrighted song, set rates must be paid to the copyright owner to acquire "mechanical rights" to use the music. The current rates are set by the U.S. Copyright Office, but you may also go through a private, non-profit organization called the Harry Fox Agency, which simplifies the licensing exchange.

8. "Poor Man's Copyright" isn't good copyright protection.

You may have heard that you can establish the date of creation for copyright law purposes by mailing yourself a copy of the work and keeping it in a sealed envelope; this is often called "Poor Man's Copyright."

In reality, this evidence is not likely to prove useful in a future copyright case. The best advice is to go through the copyright registration process for complete protection.

Make sure your work is protected START MY REGISTRATION
Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.

About the Author

Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.

Freelance writer and editor Michelle Kaminsky, Esq. has been working with LegalZoom since 2004. She earned a Juris Docto… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.