When you start a band, the music is paramount, but you also have to consider intellectual property protection and business formation practices. Both are essential to any group's success.
We'll cover how trademarks and copyrights apply to the music world and what you need to know to establish your band's brand.
Copyrights and trademarks: Why does a band need them?
It helps to understand the legal concepts of trademark and copyright law so that your band name and materials are protected from being used without your permission.
Copyright and trademark laws are two forms of intellectual property rights that allow owners, inventors, and creators to protect their works from unauthorized use.
- Trademarks protect distinctive brand signifiers, such as words, names, symbols, sounds, and colors used in commerce to distinguish products and services by their company or brand.
- Copyrights protect specific creative works, such as a song or painting.
Especially if your band has promotional artwork, you should be aware of how these protections work so you can guard your creations with a copyright.
Turning your band into a business: 6 essential steps
All bands require a little behind-the-scenes effort to keep things running smoothly. Read on for six tips that can help your band start off in the right direction.
1. Launch an LLC
It may seem odd to form a limited liability company (LLC), but the purpose is to shield band members from liability.
A band could face liabilities in many ways, whether with venues, publishers, or other bands. An LLC would shield you from being personally liable for these lawsuits if you lose one, meaning your personal assets would be off the table.
When your LLC is formed, you'll need to decide if your bandmates are:
- Employees need to fill out a W-4 to withhold taxes from their paychecks
- Independent contractors need to fill out a W-9 to pay their own taxes
If you and your bandmates are close, you should chat with them about whether they prefer to be employees or contractors.
2. Register a publishing company
Even if you're a solo musician or songwriter and not in a band, forming a publishing company can help protect your interests in your music's profitability.
Songwriters are entitled to half the royalties for a given song, while half goes to the publisher. If you don't have a publishing company, you can't collect publishing royalties for your music.
Your publishing company can be a sole proprietorship, which usually only requires a quick visit to the clerk's office for a business registration form.
3. Start a business bank account
Keeping track of your finances while managing your band is a lot of responsibility. Instead, launching an LLC bank account as a newly formed business can help you stay on top of your money.
A business bank account allows you to separate your business expenses from your personal ones. While this may seem minor, when tax season comes around, you'll create a headache for yourself if you have to comb through your bank statements to find old transactions. A business bank account keeps everything organized in one place.
4. Trademark your band name
With millions of bands creating music all over the world, there may come a time when another band tries to use your band's name. A federal trademark comes into play to help your band stay distinctive.
Trademarks are registered through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and can be verified with a trademark search to see if a name is available. The two primary types of marks that can be registered are:
- Trademarks: Identify goods or services
- Service marks: Exclusively identify services
Trademarks and service marks provide what's called common law protection, a limited form of coverage that a registered trademark can trump. If you're interested in growing your band, registering your band name as a trademark will afford you more protection from copycats in the long run.
5. Form a partnership agreement
Keeping the group in sync and working in harmony isn't always easy—this is where a band partnership agreement comes in. A partnership agreement outlines provisions for operating your band with your bandmates, noting things like:
- Voting rights for members
- Processes for bringing in new members
- Provisions for breaking up, including via buyouts
- Resolutions for disputes between members
Your band partnership agreement should be clear as to who is responsible for obtaining the copyright protection and/or trademarks in the band's name, songs (lyrics and music), recordings, and equipment, as well as who owns them once they are secured. If your band is registered as an LLC, the LLC itself can own the copyright created by members or employees.
6. Submit your work for publishing
When you have a creative work or idea that you'd like to submit for publication or production, you may be asked to sign a submission release form, particularly if you're submitting the work yourself and not through an agent. This can even occur if you've created your own publishing company, such as in instances where your work is licensed for a marketing campaign.
Submission release forms are most commonly used with music or screenplays and are a waiver of rights to sue for issues like copyright infringement or breach of contract. If you go the route of contacting a production company directly, it is almost certain they will ask you to sign a submission release form in exchange for reviewing your script. Other types of release forms common to musicians include:
- Music release forms: Grant either licensing rights to the song(s) or a complete transfer of the copyright to the music
- Print release forms: Grant rights to personal imagery, such as photography or paintings, that are used for artistic purposes
- Copyright release forms: Grant limited rights to commercial imagery used for promotional purposes
- Podcast release forms: Grant rights to record, use, and publish an interview containing your voice, ideas, thoughts, and opinions
If your work is protected by copyright, the submission release form usually states that you will be paid market value for the rights. Even so, remember that the release is neither a contract nor a promise to buy your work. If you need a submission release form to obtain the rights to another's work, use the template below.
Protecting your rights as a musician can get complicated. If you're ever unsure about which steps to take to guard your work, limit your liability, and set yourself up for success, have an attorney review your forms before signing any rights away to someone else.
Find out more about Trademarks