Copyright 101: What Artists Need to Know to Protect Their Work

Today’s digital rat race (let’s call it the #content era) revolves around one fancy phrase: intellectual property (IP). Every creator benefits from understanding its weight. That goes for cat photographers, consumer product designers and, you guessed it, members of the music community. Recording studios represent traditional assets—physical property capable of generating economic value. The songs produced within that studio exemplify intellectual assets, or music copyrights—the manifestation of creative ideas.

Governments legally enforce different types of IP protection to incentivize innovation and business growth. For example, trademarks protect Stem’s logo. If another music distributor takes that brand element and uses it to sell its own services, Stem has legal grounds to file suit. Meanwhile, patents protect inventions ranging from Ableton Push boards to iPhone screens. For artists, nothing matters more than music copyrights, which grant them different rights to alter, perform, reproduce, synch and sell their work.

Music copyrights history dates back to the 1800s. Few changes have occurred between now and then. It’s easy to get lost in the wonderful world of legal head-scratchers. With that in mind, Stem assembled what every artist needs to know to look at their work through a legal lens.

Recording & Composition

Every song consists of two core elements: sound recording and composition. The former refers to the file, CD, etc. containing your musical work—something rewindable, transferrable. The latter refers to the song’s lyrics and melodies, which can exist on sheet music, apart from an actual file. A copyright exists for each piece. The ‘record industry’ deals in terms of sound recording copyrights. The ‘publishing industry’ deals in terms of composition copyrights. So, how does an artist get these protections?

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Baseline Music Copyrights Protection

Performing Arts (PA) Copyright – Composition

When Stem artist Dana Williams writes original lyrics in her phone notes, she automatically earns ownership over the composition, aka the performing arts copyright. The United States upholds this point-of-creation protection for songwriters. In addition, melody receives the same treatment, whether you record a voice memo or write musical notation. Publishing companies make money by acquiring PA copyrights (or writers capable of generating them) that have high economic potential.

Sound Recording (SR) Copyright – Master

Voice memos, along with Logic projects, Ableton bounces and pressed CDs, warrant automatic sound recording copyrights. Artists accumulate these music copyrights (or ‘masters’) when they translate ideas (“Let’s make songs that sound like space!”) into something tangible (the Interstellar soundtrack files). In a nutshell, if your song is original and exists in a reproducible medium (.WAV), you can claim ownership. However, you must prove two arguments to successfully combat infringement. First, you have to show that your creation existed prior to the copycat. Second, you must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the infringer knew about your original work.

Registered Music Copyrights Protection

Baseline music copyrights let creators work their magic with relative security. You can pay collaborators through tools like Stem and never think twice about royalty splits. You can make a new song and distribute it through our platform to Spotify and Apple with peace of mind, knowing you own your work. With that said, artists and teams must complete an extra step if they ever want to take legal action against infringement. The United States Copyright Office requires formal registration for both SR (master) and PA (composition) protection in court proceedings. Fortunately, the process is straightforward.

    • Join the eCO portal
    • Choose the “Standard Application” registration option
    • Select registration type
      • For compositions, select “Work of the Performing Arts”
      • For masters, select “Sound Recording”
      • If composition and master ownership are the same, select “Sound Recording” for both
    • Select title type (there are a few options)
          • Standalone song: Select “Title of Work Being Registered”
          • Song on an album: Select “Contents Titles”
          • Album title, when you don’t plan to register its songs at the same time: Select “Title of Larger Work”
          • Album title, when you do plan to register its songs at same time: “Title of Works Being Registered”

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    • Select whether your work has been published online
    • Provide relevant date-of-creation info
    • Input those who share ownership with you, if any
    • Complete remaining input fields
    • Pay $35 for a single-author work to submit (you can save money by submitting an EP or album at the same time)
    • Click here for step-by-step guidance

Long-term Value

Art, while an asset on paper, means so much more. However, it can help to recognize the legal and economic value of creativity. Longterm wealth often stems from ownership and the additional investments those residual funds enable.

It’s worth noting that 100 percent of $0.00 means nothing, and 50 percent of $10,000.00 nets less than 10 percent of $500,000. Artists with key partnerships—management, collaborators, etc.—typically have higher ceilings. Teams matter, and teams cost money.

Relatedly, it’s crucial to know the difference between money and rights. A manager might have a 15 percent commission from your gross earnings, so you’re not keeping 100 percent of the pie. Importantly, you do still own 100 percent of the rights. You can control the pie even if managers come and go. That same logic applies to Stem. We keep five percent of our users’ earnings to pay for our services, but users retain ownership and have the authority to take their catalog elsewhere if they choose. Critical thinking comes in handy when ownership falls into question. Ask yourself if you can quantify what a potential partner can do to improve your situation. Is it worth what you’re giving up? The answers will help guide you on your journey to the top.

Stick around the Stem blog for more industry tips and tricks. Every week brings new guides and graphics as we strive to help make music simple. Click here if you’re in search of music distribution that offers automated royalty splits, streamlined data and everyday support to the creative class.

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