Copyright Law and the Music Business

A Master’s Degree in Music Business Clarifies Copyright

Earning a Master of Music in Music Business and Entertainment Industries degree from the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music can help you understand music copyright law. Copyright law is one of the branches of intellectual property law, which protects things that are intangible but have value. Music copyright law is an essential component of intellectual property law, and it can help you negotiate deals effectively.

Copyright Law and Exclusive Rights

Federal copyright law gives individuals a limited monopoly over how others use their creations (i.e., songs, books or paintings). Copyright law grants five exclusive rights to the copyright holder: the right to reproduce the work, the right to distribute copies of the reproductions, the right to make derivative works, the right to public performance of the work (including television and radio performance) and the right to publicly display the work.

One exception to music copyright law is the compulsory mechanical license provision. Once a songwriter has recorded a song and distributed recordings of that song to the public, anyone else can perform a cover of that song. A mechanical license is the right to reproduce a song in a sound recording. Anytime an artist reproduces a song in recording, a mechanical license is necessary.

The mechanical CD and other physical recording royalty rate is 9.1¢ per composition or 1.75¢ per minute for songs over 5 minutes. A musician who wants to record a cover usually enters into a direct agreement with the publisher. The person asking for a mechanical license may be able to negotiate for a lower rate.

Copyright Term and Fair Use

A copyright lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years. An artist often assigns the copyright to a music publisher in exchange for a royalty or income stream split. Copyright law now provides a reversion possibility. Thirty-five years after an artist has made a complete assignment of rights to a party, he can ask for the copyright back. This allows individuals to get out of deals they entered early into their careers.

The fair use exception says in certain instances one can use a small portion of the work for certain purposes. According to Section 107 of 17 U.S. Code “Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use,” those “purposes include criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching . . . scholarship or research” — (i.e., a music reviewer may reproduce a few lyrics in a magazine article, and a classroom teacher may play a song for students).

Copyright and the Right of Public Performance

Copyright holders must agree to any public performances of their songs. Television stations, radio stations, bars and any other establishment that plays music to the public must pay the song’s copyright holder. Public performance societies generally handle these transactions. In the U.S., those societies are ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. Songwriters and musicians can join these societies, who will work on their behalf to ask business owners and radio stations to enter into licensing agreements. These societies then periodically collect the money on behalf of their member artists and distribute it appropriately. The amount each artist receives depends on how often the paying businesses played his or her songs.

Derivative Works

Anyone who would like to make a derivative work (e.g., a movie adaptation of a book) can seek a license to do so. Copyright holders can negotiate an income stream or they can decline the license altogether.

There are many nuances to music copyright law. Students in a master’s degree in music business degree program graduate with professional training and legal understanding that gives them a significant advantage in the industry — they can clarify the legal rights artists have over their work.

Learn more about the Frost School of Music’s online MBEI program.


MBI: BMI and Performing Rights

Gallagher, Callahan & Gartrell: Copyright Basics for Musicians

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