Copyright Tutorial for Musicians


Funded by The New York State Music Fund, established by the New York State Attorney General at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors

Have you composed a song? Are you wondering if you should cover it yourself or sign up with a record label?

Do you want to use a small piece from another musician’s record in your song?

Do you wonder how to get your music out there?

Here’s what you need to know about how to protect your interests.

Slides to accompany this tutorial can be found here.

Introduction: Why Should You Care?

Musicians are creators and copyright law says that creators have a right to gain economic value from their creation. For example, if you write a song, you can charge money to let a movie studio or a TV station use your song in their sound track. The law gives these rights as an incentive for creation. It is thought that when creativity is encouraged, the public will be benefited because more art will be available to the public.

Copyright law places very minimal conditions on protection of creativity:

  • The creative work has to be fixed in a tangible medium. For example, if you compose music, the musical notations should be put down on paper or the music should be recorded on a cassette tape or CD.

  • The work has to be original i.e. it should be created by the author and should contain at least a small amount of creativity. If a work is copied, it is not original.

  • Protection is for a fixed duration.

Copyright law allows you to gain economic value by giving you a bundle of rights in your music. These rights are not absolute and are subject to the rights of other creators and the public. However, if somebody uses your music without your permission and their use does not come within the scope of the limitations provided by law, you are entitled to significant relief for violation of your rights.

Understanding your rights and their limitations is even more significant in the digital era. Digital technology is challenging established principles of copyright law. It has tremendously increased avenues of distribution open to musicians. It has also given rise to fears of greater infringement.

Copyright law protects a vast array of creative productions, in addition to music — books, movies, paintings, photographs etc. All these creative productions are called “works”.

Copyright Ownership

If you own a copyright, you will be entitled to the bundle of rights granted by copyright law. Therefore, it is important to understand how ownership is defined and how you can use your rights.

A few general propositions about ownership:

The Author is the Initial Owner

If you composed a song, you own the copyright. If you recorded your song, you own the copyright in the sound recording. For sound recordings it is important to remember that ownership can belong not just to the performer but also to others involved in the creation of the sound recording. However, the performer always has a copyright in the sound recording unless he/she assigns this right away by contract.

Ownership Can Be Assigned or Transferred

Giving away the bundle of rights that constitute copyright is often called a grant. If the transfer is exclusive it has to be in writing. For example, if Alice composes music, she can give Bob an exclusive right to cover her composition for distribution in the United States and Carol the exclusive right to cover her composition for distribution in Europe. These are exclusive grants and have to be in writing.

Works Can Be Made Available Under Terms More Favorable Than Copyright Allows

The Creative Commons, an organization founded by a number of legal scholars, has developed a series of licenses that allows copyright holders to retain control over their works, but still make them available under terms more favorable than copyright allows. The copyright holder can choose to make the work available under a single license or a combination of licenses. For example, a copyright holder can permit use of the work only if it is used for noncommercial purposes and if the work is attributed to him, while retaining the right to make derivative works. Or he could make it available for derivative works, but require that the derivative works be made available under the same terms as the original.

Creative commons has recently introduced a new sampling license under which artists are allowed to use portions of other artists’ works in sampling. Various artists are expected to offer their work to be used for sampling through the creative commons website. More information about the creative commons license is available on their website at

Work for Hire

Copyrights of works created by employees belong to the employer in the first instance. Also, specific categories of works created on commission can be works for hire, and therefore owned by the commissioning party, if the parties agreed to it in writing. These categories are:

  1. A contribution to a collective work.

  2. A part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work.

  3. A translation.

  4. A supplementary work, such as forewords, afterwords, pictorial illustration, map, chart, table, musical arrangements, or index.

  5. A compilation.

  6. An instructional text.

  7. A test.

  8. Answer material for a test or.

  9. An atlas.

Works that do not fall under these categories cannot be considered works for hire even if the contract between the parties states that it is a work for hire.

Joint Ownership of a Copyrighted Work

When a group of musicians together create a composition or when a band creates an album, a joint work is created. A work is considered joint if it meets these conditions:

  • both or all the authors intend that their contributions be merged into a single work;

  • this intention exists at the time of creation of the work.

No written contract is necessary to create a joint work. Each author owns an undivided portion of the entire work. While each joint author may exploit the work without other joint authors’ permission, any profits must be shared with the other joint authors. No single author can grant exclusive rights without consent of the other authors.

For example, if Gertrude writes lyrics and Harry writes the music to a popular song, both of them own copyright in the lyrics and music. Harry can give permission for someone to reprint the lyrics even though Gertrude wrote them. Gertrude can give permission for a filmmaker to use only the song’s melody as soundtrack music even though Harry wrote the music.

It is likely, that in the absence of a contract to the contrary, performers will own copyright to sound recordings jointly with record companies.

Ownership of Copyright in Sound Recordings

US copyright law requires that, in order to be eligible for protection, a creative work be fixed in a tangible medium. Therefore, a performer cannot have a copyright in his performance. However, if the performer records the performance he may have copyright in the sound recording.

The creativity in the process of creating a sound recording involves not only the performance of the singer but also the input of the instrumentalists, musical director and engineers. Because so many people collaborate in the creation of a sound recording, the issue of ownership is difficult to resolve. This issue is mostly resolved by contracts. It is important for performers of music to remember that they are likely to have a copyright in the sound recording, unless they sign those rights away.

Copyright in sound recordings was introduced in 1972. Copyright law is a federal law. It was enacted by the Congress of the United States and is applicable uniformly through out the United States. However, the state of New York protects rights in sound recordings created before 1972. This protection will continue to exist until 2067.

Beneficial Ownership

An author who has assigned his/her copyright in return for a continuing royalty interest is a “beneficial” owner of the copyright. As long as he/she has a continuing financial interest in the copyright, a beneficial owner is entitled to sue for infringement. A beneficial owner has only two rights in the work — the right to receive royalty payments and the right to sue.

For example, Alice, a songwriter, assigns her copyright in her composition to Bob, a music publisher in exchange for royalty payments. Despite this assignment, Alice can sue anyone who uses her composition without Bob’s authorization and obtain royalties.

Copyright Formalities

Copyright protection is automatic upon fixation of a work. This means that as soon as you write your song on paper or record your tune on a CD, the work is protected by copyright without any further formalities. But, the copyright formalities of registration and notice confer important advantages. Therefore, it is very important that you are familiar with copyright formalities.


Registration can be made at any time during the copyright term by depositing one or two copies of the work, an application and fees with the copyright office. More information about registration is available at the copyright office website at

Registration confers valuable benefits on the copyright owner, including:

  • A copyright owner cannot sue for infringement unless he has registered his work.

  • If a work is registered within 5 years of its publication, the certificate of registration is considered proof of ownership of copyright.

  • If a work is registered within 3 months of its publication, remedies for infringement available to the owner increase a great deal.

  • Registration allows the public to identify the copyright owner. This allows people interested in using the work to approach the owner and obtain a license.


A copyright notice consists of the symbol ©, the name of the copyright owner and the year of first publication. For sound recordings instead of the symbol © the symbol ℗ is used. Notice has to be placed on a conspicuous place of the copy of the work.

Use of notice ceased to be mandatory as of March 1, 1989. Before this date, if a work was published without proper notice, and the mistake was not corrected within 5 years of publication, the copyright on the work would be lost.

Although not mandatory, a copyright notice is still very useful in letting people know about the copyright status of a work and the identity of the owner. This allows a person interested in using the work to contact the owner.

Copyright Duration

Copyright in a work does not last forever. A limited duration ensures that others can use the work in creating new works. For example, a limitation on duration allows an interested person to republish old songs that have practically disappeared because the song’s publisher will not publish it or its author is unknown. The Constitution mandates a limitation on duration of copyright to ensure progress and public good.

Although copyright law has always recognized the principle of limited duration, the law governing duration has undergone drastic change over a period of time. Present copyright law created a new duration for works created after January 1, 1978. However, works created earlier are governed by different rules. The following table gives a breakdown of copyright durations for works created at different points in time.

Date of Copyright When Renewal Due Duration of Copyright
Pre-1923 N/A Copyright has expired
1923-1963 During the 28th year of copyright, otherwise copyright has expired 95 years from the date of copyright, if renewed in the 28th year
1964-1977 Renewal during the 28th year of copyright optional; if no renewal filed, automatic renewal 95 years from the date of copyright
Created before 1978 but not registered or published N/A Author’s life + 70 years or December 31, 2002 whichever is longer
Anonymous, pseudonymous, and corporate-owned works created after 1977 or created but not published or registered before 1978 N/A 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is sooner
1978 onward N/A Author’s life + 70 years

The Public Domain

The public domain is the realm of information and culture where intellectual property protection does not apply. When copyrights and patents expire, innovations and creative works enter the public domain. Some works such as facts and government documents are not eligible for copyright and automatically enter the public domain. Anything in the public domain may be used by anyone without permission and without the payment of a license fee. The public domain is a treasure trove of information, resources, and inspiration that artists and creators constantly use to make new works.

Rights of Musicians

The “bundle of rights” which constitute copyright as far as musicians are concerned are:

Only the copyright owner may exercise these rights or authorize others to do so. The rights mentioned above can be separated. The rights of musicians can vary depending on whether they are composers or performers. A composer is a person who creates the music — i.e. the melody, rhythm and lyrics. A performer is one who performs music. As explained in the ownership section, the performer’s copyright exists in the sound recording. We will mention differences between rights of composers and performers wherever relevant.

The Reproduction Right

The reproduction right gives the copyright owner the exclusive right to make copies of his work. For example, if you own a copyright in a sound recording, you have the exclusive right to make copies of the sound recording through CDs, cassette tapes or by any other means.

For composers of music, the reproduction right is limited by the right of others to make a sound recording once a composer has recorded and distributed copies of his composition. We will talk more about this limitation under the mechanical license section.

For performers who own a copyright in the sound recording, the reproduction right gives the exclusive right to prevent duplication of the sound recording. However, the copyright owner cannot prevent an imitation. The owner of the copyright cannot prevent somebody from gathering their own artists, equipment and engineers and recording the same song to sound exactly like the earlier recording. This might be the reason many record contracts have provisions requiring performers to agree to work for that label exclusively for a specified number of years.

The Adaptation Right

The adaptation right gives the copyright owner the exclusive right to create derivative works. A derivative work or an adaptation is a new work based on an existing work. For example, if someone uses melodies from one composition in another composition, the adaptation right is implicated. The person using the piece from the existing composition needs permission from the original composer.


Music sampling is an example of a derivative use of older works. However, sampling is a controversial practice. Many samplers may argue that they do not need licenses to sample especially when they are sampling a very small portion of a recording and the original music cannot be recognized in the sampled work.

The few courts that have dealt with the issue have treated sampling of musical compositions different from sampling of sound recordings. While sampling very small portions of a composition has been held to be permissible, sampling of even small portions of sound recordings has not. However, the law in this area is far from settled. Samplers unable to obtain license are faced with three options: do not sample, assert fair use or claim that the use is de minimis use i.e. that the use is so small that it is permissible under the law. The test for de minimis use is whether the audience can identify the original work in the sampled work.

The Distribution Right

Only the copyright owner or a person authorized by him has a right to distribute copies of the work. For example, only the owner of the copyright in a sound recording can sell or authorize others to sell CDs containing the sound recording.

The Public Performance Right

The copyright owner has the exclusive right to perform or authorize the public performance of his work. A performance is public when it is made in front of a large or undefined number of people or is broadcast to members of the public. For example, when a singer sings a song in a concert hall, a TV station broadcasts a song, there is a public performance. Private performances, i.e. performances in front of family and friends, do not need consent from copyright owners.

The public performance rights of composers and owners of copyright in sound recordings vary a great deal. Composers have to be compensated whenever their composition is publicly performed whether through radio or TV or in a concert hall. The right encompasses what has come to be known as synchronization rights. A synchronization right is the right to authorize use of music as a background or as part of a movie or a television show.

In contrast, copyright owners of sound recordings have no general public performance right. This means that when an over-the-air radio station plays a record, the composer is entitled to compensation but the owner of copyright in the sound recording is not. In 1995, Congress passed the Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act. This law grants to owners of copyright in sound recordings a public performance right in digital transmissions of their music. This right is subject to a number of limitations which we will talk about in the limitations section.

Administration of the Public Performance Right

Administration of the performance right varies between composers and owners of copyright in sound recordings. While composers administer this right through voluntary organizations, owners of copyright in sound recordings administer the right under a compulsory license scheme provided by the law. We will discuss the administration of the right for composers in this section. We will discuss administration of the right for owners of copyright in sound recordings under the limitations section.

Although the law gives exclusive performance rights to composers, it is almost impossible for individual composers to enforce this right. How is a composer to know when and where his works are being performed? Therefore, performance rights are enforced by “performance rights societies” formed by authors and composers.

The performance right is administered by three organizations — the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) and SESAC (formerly known as the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers). These organizations are also known as the performance rights organizations (PROs). They license compositions for public performance on behalf of composers who are members of these organizations and distribute royalties collected to the composers.

These PROs charge a single blanket license for unlimited access to their entire repertories of musical works for a contractual period. The license is charged as a percentage of the music user’s revenue. The percentage is negotiated based on use and the importance of the music in the user’s operation. Generally wealthier users such as the major television networks are charged more than small users.

The PROs also offer a per-program license fee for users who require minimal access to their repertories. For example all talk and all news radio stations are offered per program licenses. The revenue generated from the licenses is distributed to members based on the number of times their compositions were used and the prominence given by users to their compositions. More information about ASCAP, BMI and SESAC is available on their websites at, and

Rights Against Bootlegging

Unauthorized audio and video recording of live musical performances is referred to as “bootlegging.” This right is not part of the “bundle of rights” provided by copyright law because performers do not have a copyright in their performances. However, bootlegging is a civil offence. The law prohibits unauthorized recording of performances, distribution of copies of unauthorized recordings and transmissions of unauthorized recordings.

A copyright is not an absolute right. The law places limitations on copyrights in the interest of creativity and free flow of information. Some limitations on exclusive rights are common to all works, while others are specific to musical works and sound recordings. Limitations on copyright in musical compositions and sound recordings can be placed under three broad categories: exemptions from exclusive rights, compulsory licenses and fair use. Before talking about the limitations on copyrights in musical works and sound recordings, we should mention one limitation applicable to all kinds of works.

The First Sale Doctrine

This doctrine embodies a limitation on the distribution right. Under this doctrine, a person who purchases a copy of a copyrighted work can sell, lend or lease that copy without the permission of the copyright owner. This provision does not apply to the rental or leasing of sound recordings. However, sound recordings can be rented or leased for non-profit purposes by a non-profit library or educational institution. This provision responds to concerns that the first sale doctrine would enable people to rent a record and copy it on to a blank tape thereby displacing record sales.


An exemption to an exclusive right means that the user does not need permission from the copyright owner to use the work. Exemptions to copyrights in music and sound recordings apply to the public performance right. Certain performances like those that happen in the course of teaching in a classroom, instructional and religious broadcasts, and non-profit performances are exempted from the scope of the performance right.

The law also permits restaurants, offices, malls and other establishments to play music in the background without the permission of the copyright owner. In order to qualify for this exemption establishments have to meet three conditions:

  • They have to come within specified square footage.

  • They should not use more than six speakers or four monitors to enhance the transmission.

  • The performance should originate from an FCC licensed radio station or television station.

Compulsory Licenses

Normally, to use a copyrighted work, the user has to seek permission of the copyright owner. In many instances such permission is given in exchange for a license fee paid to the owner. However, in some situations the law permits the user to use the work without the owner’s permission provided the user pays a statutory fee or a “compulsory license” to the copyright owner. Composers and performers are affected by different types of compulsory licenses.

The Mechanical License

The mechanical license affects composers’ exclusive right to reproduce and distribute their musical works. Once a composer has recorded and distributed his composition in America, the law permits others to make and distribute a recording of the same composition, subject to payment of prescribed fees to the copyright owner. In order to receive the benefit of the license the person making the recording has to serve a notice of intention on the copyright owner within 30 days of making the recording and before distributing it. If the owner’s name and address cannot be found in copyright office records, the notice can be filed in the copyright office. A copyright owner is entitled only to royalties collected after the copyright owner is identified in the copyright office records. This is another good reason to register your copyrights.

The mechanical license was introduced in 1909 because Congress feared that record companies could monopolize songs. It applies only to non-dramatic musical works. Thus it excludes the score of an opera or a musical ballet.

It is important to remember that a person who wants to record a musical composition cannot simply copy an earlier recording. That would violate the rights of the owner of copyright in the sound recordings. Also, he cannot “change the basic melody or the fundamental character of the song”.

Royalty rates for the license can be negotiated between the copyright owner and the record company. If the parties fail to come to an agreement, the rates will be determined by the Copyright Royalty Board. In practice, resort to arbitration proceedings is rare.

In 1995, an amendment to the law called the Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act clarified that the mechanical license also extended to digital deliveries of sound recordings.

Many composers license their mechanical rights through an organization called the Harry Fox Agency. As a condition for granting membership to composers or music publishers, the Harry Fox Agency requires that the musician have at least one song commercially released through another party during the preceding 12 months

The Broadcast License

Non commercial or public broadcasting entities can transmit copyrighted musical works if they negotiate a license agreement with the copyright owners. If they fail to reach such agreement, the law provides that the license will be set by the Copyright Royalty Board.

The Compulsory License for Digital Performance

Performers are affected by compulsory licenses governing the use of sound recording. Sound recordings do not have general performance rights. So when an over-the-air radio station plays a song, performers cannot expect any compensation much less prevent the station from playing it.

In 1995, the Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act (DPRSRA) introduced a performance right for sound recordings transmitted digitally. The concern behind this legislation was that digital technologies would enable consumers to substitute digital subscriptions for record purchases and this would deplete the stream of revenue for copyright owners of sound recordings. Purchase of records would further go down because of increased home taping.

The DPRSRA creates three classes of users. The first class of users, mainly terrestrial broadcasters of free radio and television programming, are completely exempt from the right. The second class, consisting of non-interactive subscription services such as XM and Sirius radio and Internet radio are subjected to a compulsory license. The third class, consisting of interactive services such as limited downloads, does not get the benefit of the license. They have to negotiate directly with the copyright owners.

The compulsory license discriminates between non-interactive subscriptions services established before July 31, 1998 and those established later. It requires all services to satisfy the following conditions to qualify for the license:

  • Services will not play more than two consecutive selections from single album in a 3 hour period.

  • Services will not give advance notice to consumers about selection that will be played.

New services have to meet following additional conditions:

  • Avoid giving advance notice of names of featured artists.

  • Limitations on retransmitting archived programs.

  • Do not abet consumer copying.

  • Take reasonable steps to assure that technological protection measures will function.

Administration of the Compulsory License for Digital Performance

SoundExchange is the designated entity that collects royalties on behalf of labels and artists when their music is transmitted digitally i.e through digital cable and satellite television, digital radio such as satellite radio and Internet radio. Royalty is collected on a per performance basis and is distributed evenly between the artist and the label.

The royalty rate can be determined either by negotiations between the parties or by a rate setting proceeding before a statutory body called the Copyright Royalty Board. The Copyright Royalty Board periodically convenes to determine royalty rates.

Fair Use

Fair use is another limitation on your rights in your music. But it is not as well defined as the limitations and exemptions discussed in earlier sections. Its purpose is to ensure that a copyright owner’s exclusive bundle of rights will not hinder the very creativity that the law was designed to foster. The doctrine recognizes that new works draw inspiration from older works and that productive use of older works promotes the progress of science, the arts, and literature. Fair use permits use of copyrighted material without permission where use is in the public interest. The law specifically mentions criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research as exemplary fair uses, but there is no clear-cut-rule. Fair use is determined on a case-by-case basis. An activity may qualify in one instance as fair use, while it would be an infringing activity in another context.

The law sets out four factors to be used in determining whether a particular use is fair.

First Factor — The Purpose and Character of Use

Under this factor, non-profit or educational uses and uses that transform the underlying material are more likely to be considered fair. Transformative uses might be considered fair even if they are commercial.

A good example of a transformative use is parody. A parody uses the original work in order to make fun of it. From court cases decided to date, several elements emerge. For a parody to be considered fair use:

  • It must comment on the original.

  • It should use only as much of the original material as is needed and not so much that the consumer will be confused or the commercial value of the original will be diluted.

  • It should not seek to replace the original in the market place.

In Campbell v. Acuff Rose Music, the owners of the copyright in Roy Orbison’s song, “Oh, Pretty Woman”, sued the rap group 2 Live Crew, claiming that the group’s parody song infringed their copyright by using the first line of the lyrics and the song’s opening bass riff. The Supreme Court found that because 2 Live Crew’s song added significant amounts of new material and criticized the underlying work, the use was transformative and qualified for fair use. The court reached this conclusion even though 2 Live Crew’s use was for commercial purposes.

Second Factor — Nature of the Copyrighted Work

Generally, creative works are given greater protection than factual works. For example, a song would receive more protection than software code. Also, if a work is unpublished, the author’s right of first publication is recognized. Yet a work’s unpublished nature does not necessarily preclude finding of fair use.

Third Factor — Amount and Substantiality Used

Under this factor, a court would examine what portion of the work was used and the significance of the used portion.

Fourth Factor — Effect on the Market for the Copyrighted Work

Adverse effect of the use or potential adverse effect tends to go against a finding of fair use.

Your copyright is “infringed” when some one uses your music without your permission and the use is not a fair use, does not come within the scope of another exemption or a compulsory license. The law allows you to recover an amount equal to the sales you lost on account of infringement. If you are not able to calculate lost sales, you might be able to elect to take an amount fixed by the law. However, to be able to do this, you must register your work within 3 months of publication. In addition, you might also be entitled to a court order prohibiting the infringer from using your work.

Copyright in the Era of Digital Technology

Digital technology has brought about tremendous changes in the way music is distributed and enjoyed. It has made possible methods of distribution such as peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing, online music sales, podcasting and webcasting. Musicians no longer have to rely solely on physical record sales or radio stations to have their music heard by the public. Musicians who cannot or do not want to sign a contract with a record label can record their own music and reach their audience through the Internet. These changes have led to new business models and created exciting new possibilities both for musicians and their audience.

At the same time, major copyright owners, like the major record labels are becoming increasingly nervous about how digital technologies limit their control over the music production and distribution process. They fear that digital technology will increase home taping, spawn illegal file sharing networks, reduce sales of CDs, and free artists to produce and distribute their music themselves. These fears have led them to sue file sharing networks, support legislation like the DMCA which is designed to lock digital content, and seek to reduce consumer rights. Although a law called the Audio Home Recording Act was passed in 1992 to protect consumer home recording rights, record labels are demanding further changes to the law that would render AHRA’s protections of little significance to consumers.

Lawsuits Against File Sharing Networks

Peer-to-peer file sharing networks like Napster and Grokster became tremendously popular and were widely used to share music. While record companies and some artists saw these networks as tools for copyright infringement, others used them to sell their songs. These networks worked by allowing individuals who downloaded peer-to-peer software to connect their computers directly to others who had done the same. As a result, these individuals could share none, some or all of the files on each others’ computer hard drives. The technology used by the two networks — Napster and Grokster was slightly different. Napster maintained servers containing an index of music files available on the system. Grokster maintained no such centralized index.

The major record labels filed separate lawsuits against Napster and Grokster accusing these networks of allowing their consumers to illegally share copyrighted music. Both lawsuits tested the well-established principle of copyright law that an equipment manufacturer is not liable for copyright infringements of its consumers if the technology it provides is “merely capable of substantial non-infringing uses”. The Supreme Court enunciated this principle in its landmark fair use decision, in Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios. In that case the court held that using a VCR to record television programs to watch them later was fair use.

Yet in both the Napster and Grokster cases, courts held the equipment manufacturers, i.e. the suppliers of the software liable for their customer’s infringements. In the Napster case, the court said that Napster had actual knowledge of infringement and had a duty to police its servers. In the Grokster case, the court found that Grokster had taken “active steps to encourage infringement”. The court saw Grokster’s advertisements targeted at former Napster users, newsletters discussing uses of the Grokster software, and Grokster’s response to customer queries about how to use the software as evidence of these “active steps to encourage infringement”.

In both cases, the courts side stepped the issue of the technology being capable of substantial non-infringing uses. As a result of these decisions, both the Napster and Grokster services went out of business. However, even in the wake of these decisions, other P2P services continue to flourish.

AHRA: The Audio Home Recording Act

The Audio Home Recording Act (AHRA) was enacted in 1992. Although the legislation was a response to fears of record labels that digital technology would make near perfect copying possible, it was beneficial to consumers because it affirmed the consumers right to make a recording of music for personal use.

The AHRA requires digital audio recording devices, such as the XM inno, made or imported into the US to be designed to prevent serial copying. Manufacturers and importers of digital audio recording devices and media such as blank CDs are required to pay royalties to a fund. Fees collected in the fund will be distributed among record companies, performers and owners of copyright in the music. Royalties are based on a percentage of the transfer price of the device. Copyright owners are required to appoint agents to collect royalties and distribute them among their members. In exchange for these payments, the Act exempts consumers and device manufacturers from copyright infringement liability.

The AHRA might not cover all kinds of home recordings of music. The Act seems to target only those recording devices whose primary purpose is to record music. Thus copying from computers is outside the ambit of the Act.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) seeks to prevent copying by 1) prohibiting individuals from breaking digital locks used to protect copyrighted works; and 2) prohibiting anybody from manufacturing or selling any device or service that would permit the breaking of digital locks. These sections of the DMCA are called the “anti-circumvention” provisions. It also contains provisions that exempt Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from being held liable for their customers’ infringement if they satisfy certain conditions.

The Anti-circumvention Provisions

These provisions prohibit circumvention of technological protection measures (TPM’s) such as encryption technology used by copyright owners to control access to their digital works. Only devices authorized to read these TPMs will be able to access the content. For example, I will not be able to play a DVD designed to work on a Windows platform on a Linux platform. Although the law allows circumvention of TPMs that prevent copying of digital works, it prohibits trafficking in technology that can circumvent any TPMs whether employed to control access or to prevent copying.

The anti-circumvention provisions make no distinction based on whether the use is lawful or not. Therefore, one cannot break a TPM for fair use or to access a work in the public domain. The DMCA contains very narrow exceptions to its anti-circumvention provisions. These include exemptions for law enforcement, browsing by libraries, archives and schools to make purchasing decisions, and reverse engineering for achieving interoperability.

The ISP Liability Provisions

The DMCA eliminates ISP liability for infringement by customers if the ISP removes the allegedly infringing material. The ISP must provide the copyright owner with contact information of the alleged infringers. The Act sets forth a relatively simple way for copyright owners to notify the ISP that it is hosting a site containing infringing content. The ISP has five days to remove the infringed material and may replace it if the accused infringer claims it does not infringe and provides its address and other information, so the accuser can deal directly with the accused.

Proposed Legislative Changes

Major record labels are urging Congress to pass legislation that would protect their interests over artists interests and limit the way consumers enjoy your music. Often, these attempts come in the form of provisions inserted into bills that are otherwise beneficial to the music industry and seek to reform various practices in the music industry. Two such bills are the Section 115 Reform Act or the SIRA and the Perform Act.

SIRA was introduced in the September 2006. While most of SIRA’s provisions were aimed at improving the process by which online music providers obtain mechanical licenses, it also contained provisions that were bad for consumers and small artists. The bill, if enacted, would have:

  • prevented consumers from recording music transmitted digitally;

  • increased royalties for many Internet radio services;

  • allowed record companies to divert publishing royalties from the musicians to the record companies in order to repay the advances.

SIRA did not pass into law in the last Congress. But a similar bill is likely to be introduced in future.

The Perform Act was introduced in the Senate in January 2007. The purpose of the bill is to eliminate discrimination between existing subscription and satellite radio services and new services in setting rates for the digital performance license. But the bill also contains provisions that would prevent consumers from enjoying music the way they want to. For example, provisions in the bill would only allow consumers to record music from digital radio broadcasts in the sequence in which the program was transmitted. They could not record digital transmissions based on the artist, or album or sound recording. They could not burn the recording to a CD or other portable device. They could not change the sequence of the recording.

The one positive attempt at change in this environment is to require over- the-air broadcasters to pay performance royalties. As we discussed in the sections above, free over-the-air broadcaster are exempted from paying royalties to performers while satellite radio services and Internet radio services have to pay such a royalty. Although many believe that this disparity should be eliminated and over-the-air broadcasters should be required to pay such a royalty, there is considerable opposition from the broadcasters. No concrete legislative proposal has emerged to solve this issue.


We hope this tutorial helped you gain a better understanding of copyright law. While it is important to understand the law, it is also important to understand how, as a matter of policy, copyright law affects you.

Copyright law gives you valuable rights. It creates a legal framework which ensures that you get compensated when your music is used. And you should do everything in your power to secure and safeguard these rights. However, we believe that the current copyright regime has lost sight of the balance between the rights of the musicians and the rights of the public. Copyright law has been and continues to be amended to accommodate the interest of large corporate copyright owners like the major record labels. These developments are not good for the public and neither are they good for all but perhaps the wealthiest musicians.

Technological Locks Give Copyright Owners Greater Rights Than Copyright Law Permits and Anger and Frustrate Music Fans

Technological locks assume that all consumers are pirates and will steal music if they could. As a result they create restrictions on access greater than what copyright law permits. For example some CDs can only be played on CD players and not on computers. Copyright law does not tell audiences how many times they can listen to a song. But technological locks make this restriction possible. To the extent that artists often need to study certain works over and over again, excerpt, modify and transform pieces of work, and play them on different devices, technological locks make this not only harder, but also in some cases illegal.

In addition, as the Sony BMG CD copy protection scandal illustrates, technological locks can actually harm consumers. Sony BMG included copy protection technology on several albums sold on CDs. The software used in this technology interfered with the normal working of certain computers and allowed viruses to break in. Sony had to eventually recall its CDs.

Peer To Peer Technology is Not Evil

It is true that the Napster and Grokster networks were used to share music and often the artists and the record labels were not compensated. But it is also true that some copyright holders use P2P networks to sell their works. Peer-to-peer technologies might enable smaller users to reach their audiences in ways they could not otherwise reach them. They do not have to overcome hurdles created by gatekeepers such as record labels or major broadcasters. Besides, studies suggest that P2P users actually buy more music than the average consumer. For many of these users, P2P allows them to decide what music they want to buy. So, destroying the technology is not the answer to problems faced by copyright owners. A more sensible approach would be to work to find a way to compensate artists rather than to destroy the technology.

Digital Delivery and Transmission of Music Gives All Musicians a Greater Audience

Digital technology enables musicians whose music is not considered “main stream”, or those who do not want to sign on to major record labels to sell their music online . Internet radio, unlike traditional mass radio stations, is known to transmit all kinds of music. But current laws and practices discriminate between digital music and analog music. Digital deliveries and transmissions are charged higher royalty rates. Bills like the SIRA and Perform Act would require technological protection measures to limit what consumers can do with music transmitted digitally. Services that do not want to install these measures will have to pay very high royalties for the music they transmit or may be completely denied permission to transmit. This only makes these services expensive and unpopular. Charging more for digital music cannot be good for artists because this is the medium that gives you maximum exposure.

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