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Music Copyright and Licensing

This is a guide to basic copyright and licensing for musicians written by Casey Burgess. NOTE: THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE. FOR SPECIFIC INFORMATION ABOUT COPYRIGHT OR LICENSING PLEASE SEEK LEGAL COUNSEL.

What Is Copyright?

Copyright is one of three types of intellectual property. Intellectual property also covers patents, which are protections for a process, and trademarks, which protect a brand. Copyright is the original and most pervasive form of intellectual property.

Copyright is the protection of an expressed idea. To be more specific, copyright protects "original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works" (U.S. Copyright Office, Copyright in General (FAQ)). What does this mean?

  • Original Works of Authorship
    • A work cannot be a derivative or copy of an existing work.
    • It must be associated with a person, group, company, or some other entity. Works written by anonymous people or people working under a pseudonym are also protected.
  • Fixed in a Tangible Medium
    • A work must be put in a format that could be accessed by someone other than the creator.
    • The law defines this phrase as "when its embodiment in a copy or phonorecord, by or under the authority of the author, is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than transitory duration" (17 U.S.C. §101).
    • Here are some examples:
      • A published music score
      • An unpublished manuscript
      • A recording of a concert made on a phone*
      • A CD
      • A Powerpoint Presentation
    • * NOTE that there are different laws that govern performer's rights, so if the recording is made illegally, it is not protected by the law.
  • Expression
    • Copyright protects expressions of an idea. You cannot protect an idea under copyright laws. Here's a distinction: The Beatles could not protect the idea of creating a concept album, but they could, and did, protect Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts band once they wrote down the lyrics and music and recorded the album.


  1. How do I get copyright protection for a work? Do I need to register my copyright?
    • Once you create a work of expression in a fixed, tangible medium, the work is already protected under copyright law. 
    • Registration is an optional step. If you want to sue someone for infringing on your copyright, you will need to have a registration to easily prove that you originally created the work and have the right to sue this person.
  2. Why does copyright matter?
    • By protecting authors' ownership of their works, copyright encourages creation of new works and protects artists from getting hurt financially. You've spent a ton of time making your work, you should reap the benefits!
  3. What kinds of works does copyright protect?
    • Literary works
    • Musical works
    • Dramatic works
    • Pantomimes and choreographic works
    • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
    • Motion Pictures and other audiovisual works
    • Sound recordings
    • Architectural works
  4. What protections do I get for my copyrighted work?
    • Owners of copyrights have the right to control the following:
      • Reproduction
      • Derivative work
      • Public distribution
      • Public performance
      • Public display
      • Digital audio transmission of sound recordings
      • Importation
      • (For visual art only) Attribution and integrity
  5. What is Fair Use?
    • Fair use is a loose term to describe a phenomenon as a result of legal precedents which allow the use of copyrighted material in VERY SPECIFIC CIRCUMSTANCES.
    • See the tab on the left called "Fair Use" for more information.
  6. How long does copyright last?
    • It depends on the who, what, where, and when the work was created.
    • See the tab on the left called "Copyright Duration" for more information.
  7. If something is protected by copyright, does that mean it can never be used?
    • Not necessarily! Use is up to the discretion of the creator. You can license a work that is not in the public domain.
  8. What is the public domain?
    • When a work has fallen out of copyright (usually because it has expired) or was never protected by copyright, it falls into the public domain. Anyone can use works that are in the public domain.
    • Works by government agencies, both state and federal, are public domain

Please note that this guide is merely to educate people on the law and does not contain any legal advice. If you have a legitimate question about copyright, please consult with a lawyer.