Chances are that, by now, you’ve heard about the Spotify drama. Artists simply aren’t being paid as much as they deserve. To quote Taylor Swift, “Music is art and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.”
The situation is even worse for smaller bands and lesser-known musicians. Even if you’re going on world tours as a featured member of a pretty big group, you might only be pulling $5,000 a show, and that’s assuming your booking agent is able to get you a decent backend.
What does this mean? It means that musicians have always struggled to get the money that they’re owed, whether from big companies or friends willing to “pay in experience” or “help get your name out there.”
By taking the proper steps to protect your intellectual property rights as a musician, you increase the revenue that you’re able to bring in from intangibles such as music videos and MP3 files, decreasing the necessity for constant touring.
How Does Intellectual Property Law Apply to Music?
There are four major areas of intellectual property law: copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets. Unless you’re working as a producer who owns his/her own company, likely you’ll never have to worry about trademarks or trade secrets.
Patents, also, only really apply to you if you’re creating something physical. And yes, while music can feel physical and be physically made, legally it is considered an intangible asset (more on that below).
This, then, leaves copyrights. Copyrights are legal registrations that proclaim you the sole legal owner of the work of art.
Applied to music, copyrighted lyrics cannot be “stolen,” melodies cannot be copied, and everything else in the song is yours and yours alone to do with as you so choose. If that means you want to leave it on your hard drive and never show anybody until you die or if you want to sue your neighbor for playing it at a wedding without your permission, you will have the legal power to do so.
What Do I Have to Gain By Copyrighting My Songs?
Literally speaking, you can’t own music. Music, the knowledge of how to make it, and the recordings thereof are what people in the technological sector refer to as “intangible assets.” This means that physical copies of those recordings and brain-stored data don’t technically exist.
Described in real terms, that means that anybody can learn or reproduce the stuff an infinite number of times. Unfortunately for artists, this comes with a few major pitfalls when left to the market.
Monopolies Are Your Friend, When You Own Them
However, by copyrighting your music, the United States Copyright Office gives you the special privilege of using government force to prevent anybody from re-recording or performing music that you created, regardless of whether or not they can do it better, more efficiently, or cheaper than you.
This government-backed monopoly subverts the natural market forces at work and enables you to charge artificially higher prices to account for the artificially decreased supply, making you the only person legally capable of sharing your music with the world.
How Do I Get a Copyright?
The copyright process is similar to the process for applying for a provisional patent application, although much, much simpler.
While the provisional patent application can take years and cost tens of thousands of dollars, the copyright process might only take two to three months and cost about $50.
Of course, this assumes that you have an attorney help you with the paperwork. J.D. Houvener, a San Francisco patent attorney, once said, “Pro se applicants, … oftentimes, they don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t fill out the right form, or they miss important deadlines.” Any of these mistakes, though they may seem minor, can increase the chances of the bureaucrats at the United States Copyright Office rejecting your application. By hiring a lawyer, you significantly cut down the odds of that happening.
The Filing Process
The filing process in and of itself revolves primarily around a single application process that takes only a few moments to fill out. However, complementary documents may be requested in order to help the USCO conduct its investigation.
If the USCO finds that your work has never been tangibly rendered (such as by writing it down or recording it) or that you are not the sole contributor to the work of art, your application might be denied and you risk being charged with perjury, depending on the degree of falsity in your application. Unfortunately, ignorance of the law is not a valid legal defense for anybody other than police officers acting with qualified immunity. Of course, by hiring a lawyer, you turn any chance of legal ignorance resulting in fines into a near-zero afterthought.
In conclusion, you stand to gain quite a bit by copyrighting your music. Through the use of intellectual property laws, you can game the system into nominating you the sole authoritarian over your brainchildren.
What better way to protect your legacy and ensure that you are paid what your rightfully deserve than to hire a lawyer and secure your copyrights?
IP Law and the Music Industry by Tori Lutz