To understand the basis of music publishing, you must understand it’s foundation: copyright.

Copyright is a form of protection provided by law to the authors of “original works of authorship,” which include literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and other intellectual works. Copyright Law grants all copyright owners the right to reproduce their work, prepare derivatives (remixes, etc.), publicly perform and display the work, and distribute copies of it to the public.

A work is under copyright once it’s fixed in a tangible form, so this protection is available to both published and unpublished works. However, registering your work(s) with the Copyright Office makes it easier to sue and recover damages in case of copyright infringement.

Sorry, but the poor mans copyright is useless.

Things You Can Copyright:

  1. Literary works
  2. Musical works
  3. Dramatic works
  4. Pantomimes & choreographic works
  5. pictoral, graphic & sculptural works
  6. Audiovisual works
  7. Sound recordings
  8. Architectural works
Things You Can NOT Copyright:

  • Ideas, Concepts, Procedures or Methods
  • Commonly Known Information
  • Choreographic Works
  • Titles, Names, Slogans, Short Phrases or Expressions
  • Fashion Design

The expiration date of a copyright in the United States is currently 70 years after the last living author’s death. After this point, the song enters the public domain. Public domain works are not protected by copyright law and may be freely used by anyone.

However, keep in mind: the expiration dates differ by country and by date of creation. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s in the public domain.

Bonus Nugget

When listening to a song, you are experiencing two separate copyrights: the sound recording (the sound you hear) and the underlying composition (the music/lyrics). Typically record labels own the sound recording (more commonly known as the master), while songwriters and their music publishers own the underlying composition.

Links:
Rights Granted Under Copyright Law
5 Things You Can’t Copyright
Copyright Reversion & Its Impact On The Music Industry