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What are the Basics of Music Copyright Law?

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  • Written By: Melissa Barrett
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 22 September 2017
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2017
    Conjecture Corporation
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Music copyright law basically protects original compositions of music against unauthorized reproduction or public performance. With few exceptions, music is considered to be protected as soon as it created in some reproducible way. Sheet music, public performances and sound recordings are all considered reproducible for this purpose.

As of early 2011, there was no standard international music copyright law. In general, artists are protected by regional and local regulations. International copyright protection, however, does sometimes exist in the form of international treaties.

Protection under music copyright law focuses primarily on ownership of an original work. Most often, the composer of a piece of music is also the owner. In certain circumstances, however, the composer is presumed to have given up this right. An example of this would be a piece of music created on commission for someone else.

The copyright to a work may be sold. Selling the right to use a piece of music in a specific way is referred to as selling usage rights. In this case, the buyer is allowed to use the music only in the way that is agreed upon. The artist still retains his or her ownership. If an artist sells his or her copyright completely, the ownership and all the rights to that piece of music transfer to the buyer.

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Often, artists mark their works with symbols to give notice that the work is copyrighted. Music in written form including lyrics and sheet music is marked with a © followed by its date of creation and the composer's name. Musical recordings are marked likewise, except they are marked with a letter "P" in the circle instead of a "C."

In some other countries, such as the United States, notice of copyright is not necessary for protection under music copyright laws. Often though, inclusion of notice can strengthen a legal case if a piece of music has been used without the copyright owner's permission. Notice also offers some additional protection when a copyright violation occurs within two or more jurisdictions.

Likewise, registration of a work is not required in some countries, but it does provide additional protection under music copyright law. By registering a work before a copyright violation, the owner becomes eligible for payment of statutory damages and attorney’s fees in addition to actual damages. Registration also can aid in preventing the distribution of illegal copies through importation.

In many countries, it is largely the copyright owner's responsibility to monitor his or her music against infringement. When infringement is discovered, protection under music copyright law is enforced primarily through civil actions. If a copyright infringement is proven, a judge can issue an order to the person responsible for the violation ordering him or her to stop using the music. Generally, the owner of a composition must prove economic loss to be entitled to damages.

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