Musical Works as Copyright Subject Matter

The copyright law of the United States provides for copyright protection in “musical works,” including any accompanying words, which are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. With music, both the lyrics and the musical composition itself are copyrightable expressions. Musical works include both original compositions and original arrangements or improvements to earlier works. In general, the owner of a copyright in a work has the exclusive right to make copies, to prepare derivative works, to sell or distribute copies, and to perform the work publicly. Anyone else wishing to use the work must have the permission of the author or someone who has obtained rights through from author.

Right to Make and Distribute First Sound Recordings
A sound recording of a musical work includes the right to make and distribute the first sound recording. Although others are permitted to make subsequent sound recordings, they must compensate the copyright owner of the musical work under the compulsory licensing provision of the law.

Copyright Protection Is Automatic
Under the present copyright law, which became effective January 1, 1978, a work is automatically protected by copyright when it is created. A work is created when it is “fixed” in a copy or phonorecord for the first time. Neither registration in the Copyright Office nor publication is required for copyright protection under the present law.

Different Holders of Various Copyrights
Different entities may hold the various copyrights. Generally speaking, the copyright to the song, which includes the music and lyrics, may be transferred to the publisher of the song. The recording company usually holds the copyright to the sound recording. Once a song has been lawfully recorded, others may record the work as long as they pay at least the statutory license fees. If music is to be synchronized with a movie or other audiovisual work, a synchronization license, generally with the publisher or other copyright holder, will be necessary. Royalties will also have to be paid to the copyright holder when a song is sung or played on radio, television, live concerts, and over the Internet.

Advantages to Copyright Registration
Although it is not mandatory, there are certain advantages to registration, including the establishment of a public record of the copyright claim. Copyright registration must generally be made before an infringement suit may be brought. Timely registration may also provide a broader range of remedies in an infringement suit.

Publication, as defined by the Copyright Act, is the distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. The offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display, constitutes publication. However, a public performance or display of a work does not of itself constitute publication. The following acts also do not constitute publication: performance of the work, preparation of copies or phonorecords, or sending the work to the Copyright Office.