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The Basics of Music Copyright

Music copyright is one of the most common ways for people to interact with the intellectual property system. It affects many different services that people use all the time, such as Pandora, YouTube, and Netflix. It even appears in the news, such as the recent multimillion dollar judgment against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for infringing one of Marvin Gaye’s copyrights with their song “Blurred Lines.”

Yet, the issue of music copyright is complex, and often misunderstood. The reason is because there are actually a wide range of different pieces of a song that are copyrighted independently. This is usually less important if there is only one person writing the song or if multiple people are working together, but if multiple people are creating it independently, it can get complicated.

Music Copyright in General

Saying that an artist has a copyright on a song is a bit of an oversimplification. Songs are comprised of a variety of different parts, such as the lyrics and the melody. Each of these are often, though not always, capable of meeting the qualifications for copyright on their own. This is because copyright protects “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” For instance, if a person wrote a song’s lyrics, they could theoretically stop there and copyright just the lyrics as a poem. Yet, each of these things taken together would make up the entire song copyright.

Performances of the song also may have separate copyrights from the song itself. For instance, if musician A writes a song, then they have the exclusive right to perform that song. However, if they give a license to musician B to perform it, and B makes a recording of that performance, then B would have a copyright in the recording of the performance that was made with A’s permission.

The Sampling Issue

Another common issue that has recently become more important from a legal standpoint is sampling, the conscious use of a small portion of another song in an artist’s work. This sort of use is subject to copyright law, but the exact standards for determining infringement are somewhat hazy. First, the general test for infringement is “substantial similarity,” so if the sample is so altered or unrecognizable that the ordinary listener would not notice a substantial similarity, then it is not infringing. Alternatively, the sampler could argue that the sampling was fair use. Again, this is a risky proposition and the success will depend on the specifics of a case. A fair use defense argues that the sampler only took a small amount of the sampled song and transformed it sufficiently, so that the subsequent use was not a violation of copyright law. Artists looking to sample songs for more certain legal ground can also opt to license the music in order to minimize the risk of future legal battles.

Copyright is a varied area of the law that touches many people’s lives. If you are concerned someone may be violating your copyright, or you have been accused of copyright infringement yourself, contact a West Palm Beach copyright attorney at Pike & Lustig, LLP today.

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