Legal Protections for Musicians – Copyright

In this three-part mini series, I’m going to look at the legal protections UK law provides to musicians to allow them to protect their work. These rights are:

  1. Copyright which gives the creators of music, lyrics and sound recordings rights to control use of their work. These rights include saying who can and cannot make copies, issue copies to the public, or broadcast and use on-line.
  2. Moral Rights which provide a right for an artist to be identified as the creator of material such as a song, and to object to any distortion or false or misleading portrayal of their material.
  3. Performing Rights whichprovide various rights in performances by an artist, such as a gig. These include rights in all recordings, films or broadcasts of their performances.

The first part of this mini-series looks at copyright. Moral rights and performing rights will be the subject of future blog posts.

What is copyright?
Copyright protection is automatically and freely available for works that are original and that have been recorded. The law regarding copyright is set out in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (the ‘CDPA’). In essence, copyright rewards individuals who have independently created a piece of work such as music or lyrics by enabling them to control use of their work.

The CDPA sets out various categories of works that qualify for copyright protection. For musicians, this means that distinct and separate copyright works can exist in relation to a song recorded to CD. In this example, copyright protection will apply to:

  • The music of the song  which is classified as a ‘musical work’.
  • The lyrics of the song which is classified as a ‘literary work’.
  • The sound recording of the song which is classified as a ‘sound recording’.

The fact that the CDPA provides copyright protection for sound recordings is of particular interest to musicians as a new, clear and separate right of copyright will exist in a recording of any existing piece of work. So, if a producer records an artist playing one of their songs then a new work has been created by the generation of that sound recording.

Artists can use this to their benefit. For example, Squeeze recently re-recorded part of their back catalogue when Universal refused to grant them a licence to use their original recordings. By re-recording their original works a new work was created and Squeeze own that work. This has put them back in commercial control of the songs that they originally created.

Who benefits from copyright?
The CDPA states that the person who creates the work – the ‘author’ – owns the copyright to that work. So, the artist who writes lyrics or music will own the copyright to those lyrics or music.

Often the lyrics are written by one person and the music by another. Alternatively, two or more persons could collaborate on writing a song – both being involved in the creation of lyrics and music together. In both scenarios, the artists are called co-writers and they jointly own the work they created. In this scenario, the artists should ensure that they agree, in writing, who owns the lyrics and who owns the music. If the artists have worked together on elements of both then they should record the percentage contribution made in each area (e.g. Miss Lyricist – 20% music, 75% lyrics and Mr. Songwriter – 80% music and 25% lyrics).

Needless to say, there are numerous disputes between artists, producers and band members as to who wrote what. Not surprisingly, these disputes tend to surface when the disputed song becomes a hit! The most prominent recent example is that between James Blunt and producer Lukas Burton in which Burton claims to have co-written six songs with Blunt from the Back to Bedlam album. The preponderance of such costly, prolonged and damaging disputes makes it clear that a written record of ‘who owns what’ should accompany the writing and recording of any material.

A special provision applies to sound recordings, where the CDPA states that the author is deemed to be the ‘producer’ of the sound recording. However, the CDPA goes on to define ‘producer’ as meaning the person who made the arrangements necessary for making the sound recording. This typically means that the party who paid for the recording will own the copyright to that recording. Artists should therefore tread carefully in this area and preferably take legal advice. Before entering a studio as part of a demo or studio deal, be clear who will own what rights and ensure this is set out in writing and signed by the producer and studio.

How long does copyright last?
Copyright protection generally lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years from the end of the calendar year of his or her death. There are some exceptions to this. For example, for works created by co-writers copyright lasts for 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last known co-writer dies.

For sound recordings, copyright lasts for 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the recording is made or published, or, if not published, played or communicated in public (where this occurs during that period).

What protection does copyright provide?
If you benefit from copyright then the CDPA prevents a person doing any of the following acts without your permission or consent:

  • Copying your work.
  • Issuing copies of your work to the public.
  • Renting or lending your work to the public.
  • Performing, showing or playing your work in public.
  • Communicating your work to the public.
  • Making an adaptation of your work or doing any of the acts listed above in relation to an adaptation.

For there to have been an infringement one of the listed acts must have been committed in respect of the whole or a substantial part of your work. What is a ‘substantial part’ is assessed on the basis of quality rather than quantity.

In the 1934 case of Hawkes & Son Limited v Paramount Film Service Limited the court held that a 20 second sample from a four minute recording of Colonel Bogey was an infringement of copyright because that sample was so recognisable. Lyrics also receive protection. In Ludlow Music Inc. v Robbie Williams and others (2000), the court found that the Robbie Williams song “Jesus in a Camper Van” had taken the central idea from Ludlow’s “I am the Way (New York Town)”, namely that the Son of God attracted bad luck by going round saying “I am the way” and had embodied it in virtually identical words. This was of sufficient substance to amount to an infringement of copyright.

What can I do if somebody has infringed my copyright?
If somebody has infringed your copyright then there are a range of possible remedies. These include:

  • Injunctions – which can give you the power to search premises, freeze assets or prevent the sale of, say, counterfeit music.
  • A court order requiring the infringer to deliver infringing copies of your work to you.
  • Seizure of infringing copies and other articles.
  • Forfeiture.
  • Damages to allow you to recover the money you would have made but for the infringing act. Alternatively, you may be entitled to require the infringer to account to you for the profits the infringer made from their illegal activity.
  • Criminal sanctions for certain offence. For example, making an infirnging copy of a copyright work available for sale or hire carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment or a substantial fine.

Please feel welcome to leave comments and feedback on the above post. I am also happy to answer general copyright questions submitted as comments through this entry. If you would like to discuss any specific requirements then please feel welcome to call me, Mark Roberts, on 0161 826 9309.

Mark Roberts

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