This week’s installment is part one in a multi-part series on copyright that I’ll be writing over the next few weeks. This week, I want to tackle the basic terminology and concepts behind copyright before moving on in subsequent weeks on ways that composers can and do leverage their copyrights to generate income; the benefits of registering your copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office; practical concepts like public domain, fair use, the doctrine of first sale, and the “poor man’s copyright”; and the impact of the Copyleft movement. I’ve written briefly about copyright before on this blog, so I’ll be rehashing a bit of old territory, but I’ll be going into greater depth in this multi-part section.
Copyright is a bit of a difficult concept for most people to get their heads around, in large part because it centers on the idea of intellectual property – the ownership of creative ideas, or the expression of those ideas. Things get a little more confusing for composers in some areas. My father – a smart man – has asked on more than one occasion: “When someone commissions you, who owns the copyright?” The answer is, of course, me, but when a CPA with a successful, 30-year career is fuzzy on issues of copyright ownership, you know it’s not a simple subject.
So let’s start with a basic definition of copyright and work from there.
What is copyright?
Copyright is a term that refers to a group of rights granted to a creator – we’ll refer to him as an “author” from now on, understanding that for our purposes “author” is interchangeable with “composer” – with respect to his creative works. Those component rights are:
• The right to make copies of the work
• The right to distribute copies of the work
• The right to make adaptations of the work
• The right to publicly display or perform the work
The right to make copies of the work is pretty self-explanatory. The right to make copies – copyright – get it? Eh? Eh? Upon the creation of the work (specifically when the work is fixed in some tangible form, such as written or notated on paper, or recorded by means video or audio), the author is the only person allowed to make copies of her work. This simple beginning is the lynchpin on which copyright is secured. All other rights, as you may notice as we go along, flow from this first right.
The right to distribute the work means that the author may sell or give away any copies of the work that she has made, yet she still retains ownership of the work, and others are prohibited from distributing the work without the author’s permission. So, after writing your latest string quartet, you aren’t giving up your copyright when you sell a copy of the score, or give one away – you’re merely distributing the physical copy of the work. The right to make copies and the right to distribute the work, when combined, form the basis of the publishing industry.
The right to make adaptations – most commonly referred to as “derivative works” – means that the author may arrange or expand on the original work in other, separate works, barring others from doing the same without the author’s permission. It’s this right that allows J.K. Rowling to continue to write in the world of Harry Potter, and prohibits other writers from writing new Harry Potter stories without Ms. Rowling’s permission. Similarly, a composer may make an arrangement of his piano piece for orchestra or brass quintet or guitar, but another composer may not make arrangements of that same work without the original composer’s permission. This right ensures that the intellectual property that Ms. Rowling has gone to such time and effort to create isn’t usurped by another writer who can’t be bothered to come up with his own world to write in.
The right to publicly display or perform the work allows the author to hang his painting, produce his play, perform his music, or read his novel or poem in public – preferably for a fee – and prevents others from doing the same without the author’s permission. This right is where we get our performance royalties from – ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC have built an entire industry around this one right. Performances via audio or video are also covered under this right.
Now, reading all that, it may seem as though these rights are actually more restrictive than helpful, and maybe the Copyleft folks have it right – copyright only serves to restrict the freedom of speech and dissemination of information. Uh, no.
First, a word about the origins and purpose of copyright in the U.S. (my apologies to my non-U.S. readers – this is all U.S.-based discussion).
Copyright was seen as so important to our Founding Fathers that it was written into the body of the Constitution itself. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution reads: “The Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”. From this section comes the legal basis for copyright, patent, and trademark. Powerful little clause there, huh?
The basic purpose of copyright is to promote science and the arts by allowing authors to control the uses of their works. Imagine: if these rights weren’t protected by law, anyone could appropriate our work, slap their name on it, and not only call it their own, but attempt to make money from it. In such a world, what incentive is there to share our writings and scientific findings? (Let me point out here that copyright doesn’t extend to facts, but only to the individual expression of ideas. Consequently, writing a novel set in London doesn’t put London under copyright, only the particular story and characters expressed in the novel.) Obviously, there is a drive in many to share their work for the love of their art or the advancement of science, but the ability to generate income from that work is an even greater incentive to disseminate it. What better way to promote science and the arts than by allowing people to make a living at them?
And Free Speech, while a lovely banner to wave, isn’t an excuse to deprive artists of their right to control how their work is used and distributed. I’ve got a big section planned on Copyleft and these arguments, so let’s move on for now and get back to copyright basics.
You’ll notice that I used the word “permission” a lot in my explanations of the component rights of copyright. Permission is the key to what I often refer to as “leveraging copyright”. These permissions are called licenses, and are the basis for the entire music business.
By giving another person permission to arrange your string quartet for full orchestra, or sell copies of your score on your behalf, or publicly perform your music, you are granting them a limited license to exercise one of your rights as an author.
Licenses can be granted for any individual right or group of rights, for any length of time that you might specify in your agreement with the licensee. Licenses can be exclusive – i.e., only one licensee may exercise those rights for a period of time – or non-exclusive – multiple licensees may exercise the same right at the same time. Licenses are the basis for royalties, publishing agreements, recording contracts, you name it. Basically, anything that will earn you money from your music is due to a license on your copyright.
When you join a Performing Rights Organization (PRO), such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC, you authorize the organization to license performances for you – in other words, to act on your behalf in exercising your right to publicly perform your work. So when an ensemble wants to perform one of the works you have registered with your PRO, the organization authorizes those performances and collects the fees that it charges for the licenses. This type of license is a very limited license – it extends to specific performances, and no more. Any performances of that work that aren’t licensed by your PRO are unauthorized, and a violation of your copyright.
When you grant another composer permission to arrange one of your pieces, you are granting them a license to exercise your right to create a derivative work. Any derivative work here, by the way, has its own copyright, which is now split between you, as the original author, and the arranger, as the author of the arrangement.
When a piece of yours is recorded, you’ll have a mechanical licensing agreement (and you should be paid a licensing fee). When that recording is broadcast, the broadcast is licensed, and you receive a royalty. When a piece of yours is used in a film, TV show, or commercial, the filmmaker etc will have to secure a synchronization license, for which a fee and/or royalty is paid to you.
If a piece of yours is recorded multiple times, you’ll be paid a compulsory license royalty.
All these opportunities for income – however big or small – are because of licenses.
While licenses are for individual rights or groups of rights, an assignment is a little different. When you assign your rights to another person or a company, you give them all of your rights to a particular work, typically for the life of the copyright (we’ll get to that).
In the concert music publishing world, a composer typically assigns his rights to his publisher. He forfeits his rights to the work, and the publisher becomes the effective “author”. In exchange for this assignment of rights, the publisher then pays the composer a percentage – typically 10% – of its gross sales for that score. (Now, I have a lot of thoughts about this, as y’all may know, so obviously stay tuned for the posts I’ll have on Publishing and Self-publishing later in the Guide.)
Duration of Copyright
Works don’t stay protected by copyright forever. There’s an expiration date for each work’s copyright. Because U.S. copyright law has changed several times in the past century, most notably to extend the duration of copyright, it can be a little confusing when it comes to knowing what is still protected by copyright and what is in the public domain. Unfortunately, there’s not always an easy answer to this. It’s almost always easier to determine whether a work is still protected under copyright than to determine if it’s not.
For works written as of January 1, 1978, the duration of copyright in the U.S. is the life of the author plus 70 years. So for your own works, you’re fine until you die, and then some.
But when quoting or sampling other works, be careful and be educated.
Quotation / Sampling / Text Setting
Before I sign off for the week, I’ll touch on one final thing. Not exactly a copyright basic, but it ties in nicely with licenses.
If you find that you absolutely need to quote or sample another work whose copyright is held by someone other than yourself, you’ll end up licensing that portion of the original work. Likewise, if you set a text that isn’t in the public domain, you’ll end up licensing it from the publisher or author. Don’t play it fast and loose – just ask for permission. And if you don’t get it, move on. We’ll talk more about securing permissions in coming weeks, though in the meantime, ASCAP has some good resources for this very topic.
On that note, I bid you a fond farewell. Next week we’ll continue with more copyright! Yay!
Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, and these posts shouldn’t be interpreted as legal advice. They’re my interpretations and opinions. If you have specific questions about copyright, I highly recommend Nolo’s excellent publications on the subject, or consulting an intellectual properties lawyer. If you think you may be the subject of copyright infringement, absolutely consult a lawyer.
I write the Composer’s Guide here once a week, taking time away from my composing to do so. If you find value in this blog, please do leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. Thanks!