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Digital Music Copyright Dos and Don'ts

  • 08 October 2014, Wednesday
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typewriter with paper that says copyright claim

Copyright was created to protect creative artists from intellectual theft. The first major modern international agreement upon copyright law took place in Switzerland, at the Berne convention in 1886. It was agreed that all authors would be protected by copyright for at least 50 years after their death, but this could be extended at the wish of individual countries. It was also agreed that copyright would apply internationally, not just in the country of creation or residence. All crucial information if you are considering using other people's music.

Copyright laws have changed over time, and are different depending upon where you live. In the USA, for example, copyright only covered authors’ rights but not recording rights until the 1970s. The USA joined the Berne Agreement in 1988. In the EU, the Copyright Duration Directive was established in 1993, stating that authors were protected by copyright for 70 years after their death. This did not apply to recordings, but in 2011 the EU approved a directive copyright for recording artists and producers to last for 70 years after death instead of 50. This directive allegedly benefits recording artists who started their careers young, and need protection and continued royalty payment for more than 50 years.

A basic understanding of copyright is crucial for any musician, especially in the age of digital distribution. It is less clear who owns what online, and much easier to make mistakes and false assumptions in your own output. Copyright exists in two formats; firstly giving rights to the author who wrote a song’s melody and/or lyrics, and secondly to people who performed or produced the actual recording. You can find out more background information on this in our previous post My Music Copyrights.

When distributing your own music online, making covers, or administrating social music networks like a YouTube channel, you need to know how to protect your own work, but you also need to know how to respect the work of others. There are increasing amounts of digital fraud, where people try to sell other artists’ works as their own, thinking that a little audio tweak or a fake name will let them slip under the net.

Here’s a list of the most important factors to bear in mind when considering correct digital distribution:

  1. You can’t re-master something and sell it as “new”. Mastering is a process that you should apply to your own original work. It is not a means of appropriating an existing song, and does not give you any creative authority over it.
  1. You can’t sell something that’s already in the public domain, even if you re-master it first: it’s like selling tap water. Public domain images, music, etc., are free for you to use, but this is not your creative and intellectual property, and you cannot monetise it.
  1. You have to get permission from the necessary rights holders, labels and publishers if you want to release a cover song. You cannot simply upload other people’s work and benefit from the income, nor can you release covers without permission. If you do try to go ahead with this sort of action, you are likely to be sued or face legal difficulties.
  1. These rules also apply to sampling: even if you are using only a few bits from a song, you should still have permission for it. We wrote a whole article about sampling history and one about how to use it, which might be useful to hip-hop and electronic music producers.
Copyright is a very interesting issue again these days, due to the popular habits of open sharing which can be clearly seen among millennial music users. Many artists in fact want users and other musicians to share their music via their own networks on platforms like SoundCloud and YouTube, and this can be extremely beneficial for promotional purposes, and produce interesting and great music. The key issue is to know where to draw the line, so that artists are not abused and robbed of their income, but creativity and inspiration is not stifled. There is a subtle difference between theft and flattery. If artists and fans work within the rules and boundaries of consenting and respectful sharing and use, the industry could benefit from a flexible and modern approach to copyright, which we will hopefully see develop over the next few years as digital sharing platforms and practices continue to evolve.

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