Copyright law falls under the umbrella of Intellectual Property which also includes Patents, Trademarks, Industrial Design and Trade Secrets. Each one of these sectors deals with a different type of protection for various types of works.
When dealing with musical works, it’s important to understand what constitutes a musical work before we can determine how it is protected through copyright law. The Canadian Copyright Act (for example) defines musical works as: “any work of music or musical composition, with or without words, and includes any compilation thereof.”
Interestingly, not all “musical” works actually fall under this category with regards to registration. Some may fall under the categories of “Sound Recordings” or “Performers’ Performances”.
In order to establish which category your musical work should be registered in, you must determine exactly what you are trying to protect. Some examples of what may be protected include:
a) lyrics: protected as a literary work
b) musical composition in any format: protected as a musical work
c) a specific recording of a song: protected as a sound recording
d) if you are a singer, your specific recorded performance of a song: protected as a performer’s performance
Now that you have determined which category your music falls into, let’s look at how to protect the copyright.
A common misconception is that people need to pay a third party to copyright their music.
However – the exclusive right of copyright (including the rights to produce, reproduce, distribute and publish the work) is automatically granted under Copyright Law to the author of a work once it is put in a fixed form.
In other words, when you record an original musical composition that you created onto a CD, it is copyrighted and you own the rights. However, unless you can prove you are the original creator of the musical work, you may run into expensive and time-consuming legal problems defending your work in the event of infringement.
This is why registering your work is often recommended, especially in our digital era where music is often showcased on websites and accessed by millions of people.
What registering a copyright does is it creates third party time-stamped proof of the time of creation. As such, should someone infringe on your work, you will have a registration certificate proving your work was completed before theirs. Without the registration, it can be tricky coming up with acceptable proof that you created the song first.
For instance, let’s say I create a musical composition and play if for a friend who is also a musician. They then (not intentionally) create a new song, and accidentally steal my melody. They finish their song, register it with a copyright registration service, and get picked up by a label. Even though I was the first one to make the song, it might be very difficult for me to prove that I played them the song before they made their composition if I did not first register the work.
As such, to build proof of your ownership (and to maintain friendships), it’s generally a good idea to register your music before showcasing it publicly.
The above information is meant as a general guide to further your copyright knowledge about music and does not constitute legal advice. For questions about your specific musical work, you should consult a copyright lawyer in your country.