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IN THE BEGINNING…

Posted in Songwriter 101 on March 19, 2004 by

Create it in your head. Then play, sing, hum or whistle it while you’re recording it, or write it down somewhere. Do that and you’ve got it.

Got what? A copyright in your song. There’s nothing else you need to do to have the law on your side. Once your song is “fixed,” as they say, all of the rights of the U.S. Copyright Law that come with owning a song belong to you.

So what exactly do you have when your song becomes copyrighted? Six very valuable rights that are exclusive to you—unless you give other people the right to use those rights, which usually would be by way of giving them a license to do so.

First, you’re the only one that legally can make copies or the first record of your song. (To learn what happens after you okay the first record to be made, read on.) Second, only you have the right to make what is known as a “derivative work” from your song. That means that if someone thinks the lyrics of your song would make a great plotline to a film, they need your permission to write a screenplay based upon your words, since the film is derived from the song. Third, only you can distribute (sell, rent, give away) copies or records of your song. Fourth, someone who wants to perform your song in public needs permission from you to do so. Fifth, the right to display your song in public (such as putting your song lyrics online) belongs solely to you, and lastly, if you produce your own demo or other sound recording, you have the exclusive right to have that recording performed publicly in a digital audio transmission, such as an online stream.

There you have it. A half-dozen rights that when appropriately used or licensed can be very valuable to you. They last a long time, too. Copyrights don’t run out until 70 years after the author dies. So you have a legacy to leave to your heirs once your creation starts earning. How can you turn your songs into money? Most successful songwriters and composers do it in this way:

The recording (sometimes called the “mechanical” right, because recordings need to be played on machines) requires record labels to pay you, the copyright owner, whenever they make CDs or tapes with your song on them. As I said earlier, your exclusive rights include choosing who makes record number one. But to assure that music reaches the widest possible audience, the law allows any label after the first to record your song without getting your specific permission—called a “compulsory” mechanical license, because the law compels you to give it—but you do get paid for the recording, either at the rate set by law or by negotiation.

The public performing right normally is licensed to broadcast and cable stations, clubs, restaurants and the like through a performing right organization (PRO), which acts as your agent in giving those places permission to play your music, collecting license fees from them for doing so and then paying you. BMI, ASCAP and SESAC are the three PROs in the United States.

The other exclusive rights can be licensed, too, if you don’t want to exercise them yourself, but the recording right and the performing right are the backbone of the music business and are the two rights that allow you to make a living at being a songwriter or composer—assuming, of course, that the people who are supposed to pay for exercising your rights in fact do so.

When most novice songwriters start out, they don’t have the contacts to get a record deal, whether or not they are musicians as well as writers. The person—or more likely nowadays, company—who does is the music publisher. It is the publisher that acts as a bridge between the creator and the public exposure of the song that can earn them both some money. In our next session, I’ll explain, among other things, how that partnership works and why, if you were getting your first book published, you’d probably keep your copyright, but if you get your first song published, you probably won’t.

In the meantime, if you’d like some more information about copyrights, you can visit http://www.csusa.org/face, a site run by the Copyright Society of the U.S.A. on behalf of its Friends of Active Copyright Education.

Until next time, may the muse—and a copyright or two—be with you.

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