This guide, and the links contained herein, are in no way meant to provide legal advice. Copyright laws are complicated and there is often no clear right or wrong. This guide is only meant to lead you toward resources that can help you make choices concerning copyright.
If you need any additional help finding copyright resources, ask a reference librarian, but for actual legal advice, please ask a lawyer!
This guide first created by MPAL graduate assistant Lindy Smith, Fall 2009. Later revamped by practicum student Madeline Hosanna, Spring 2012.
Some Copyright Ground Rules
--A work created today is protected under copyright as soon as it’s created and is protected for the lifetime of the creator, plus 70 years.
--If more than one person created a work, they might be joint owners of a work.
--When copyright expires, the work becomes public domain.
--Ideas can’t be copyrighted, only the tangible expression in a fixed medium of the idea can.
--You may use any copyrighted material under the “fair use” doctrine. (See "Fair Use")
--If something looks copyrighted, assume it is.
--When in doubt, get permission.
The Author is the Initial Owner
If you composed a song, you own the copyright. If you recorded your
song, you own the copyright in the sound recording. For sound
recordings it is important to remember that ownership can belong not
just to the performer but also to others involved in the creation of
the sound recording. However, the performer always has a copyright
in the sound recording unless he/she assigns this right away by
Ownership Can Be Assigned or Transferred
Giving away the bundle of rights that constitute copyright is often
called a grant. If the transfer is exclusive it has to be in
writing. For example, if Alice composes music, she can give
Bob an exclusive right to cover her composition for
distribution in the United States and Carol the exclusive
right to cover her composition for distribution in Europe. These are
exclusive grants and have to be in writing.
Works Can Be Made Available Under Terms More Favorable
Than Copyright Allows
The Creative Commons has developed a series of licenses that allows copyright
holders to retain control over their works, but still make them
available under terms more favorable than copyright allows.
Creative commons has recently introduced a new sampling license
under which artists are allowed to use portions of other
artists’ works in sampling. Various artists are expected to
offer their work to be used for sampling through the creative
commons website. More information about the creative commons license
is available on their website at www.creativecommons.org.
Joint Ownership of a Copyrighted Work
When a group of musicians together create a composition or when a
band creates an album, a joint work is created. A work is considered
joint if it meets these conditions:
both or all the authors intend that their contributions be
merged into a single work;
this intention exists at the time of creation of the work.
No written contract is necessary to create a joint work. Each author
owns an undivided portion of the entire work. While each joint
author may exploit the work without other joint authors’
permission, any profits must be shared with the other joint authors.
No single author can grant exclusive rights without consent of the
For example, if Gertrude writes lyrics and Harry writes the music to
a popular song, both of them own copyright in the lyrics and music.
Harry can give permission for someone to reprint the lyrics even
though Gertrude wrote them. Gertrude can give permission for a
filmmaker to use only the song’s melody as soundtrack music
even though Harry wrote the music.
It is likely, that in the absence of a contract to the contrary,
performers will own copyright to sound recordings jointly with
Ownership of Copyright in Sound Recordings
US copyright law requires that, in order to be eligible for
protection, a creative work be fixed in a tangible medium.
Therefore, a performer cannot have a copyright in his performance.
However, if the performer records the performance he may have
copyright in the sound recording.
The creativity in the process of creating a sound recording involves
not only the performance of the singer but also the input of the
instrumentalists, musical director and engineers. Because so many
people collaborate in the creation of a sound recording, the issue
of ownership is difficult to resolve. This issue is mostly resolved
by contracts. It is important for performers of music to remember
that they are likely to have a copyright in the sound recording,
unless they sign those rights away.
--From Public Knowledge