I have seen Christian band members use the words copywrite and copyright interchangeably. So, let’s clear up the meanings and the spelling. Both words are pronounced the same way (hence the confusion) but they have very different meanings.
A copywriter is “a writer of advertising or publicity copy”, according to Webster’s Dictionary. It’s actually a job title in the advertising industry. A Christian Band could use a copywriter to write advertising such as the “About” section on a Facebook page or portions of the band press kit. But most bands cannot afford this expense. So, much of the time, when a band is referring to “copywrite”, they really mean “copyright”.
Webster’s Dictionary defines a copyright as “the exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something (as a literary, musical, or artistic work)”. It can be used as a noun, verb, or adjective… that is one handy little word… and a topic that keenly interests bands. In short, copyrights are the rights that you have as an artist to own and sell your work. But, as with all things legal, it is never easy or inexpensive to protect your rights.
What rights does an artist have?
The Unites States Copyright Office says an artist has these exclusive rights (Which mean you are the only one who can, unless you give someone else your permission.):
• “reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords
• prepare derivative works based upon the work
• distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending
• perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomime, motion pictures, and other audiovisual works
• display the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work
• perform the work publicly (in the case of sound recordings*) by means of a digital audio transmission
*Note: Sound recordings are defined in the law as “works that result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds, but not including the sounds accompanying a motion picture or other audiovisual work”. Common examples include recordings of music, drama, or lectures. A sound recording is not the same as a phonorecord. A phonorecord is the physical object in which works of authorship are embodied. The word “phonorecord” includes cassette tapes, CDs, and vinyl discs, as well as other formats.”
Interestingly enough, you have copyrights automatically (In the United States, Canada, and most but not all other countries). All these rights belong to “authors of original works of authorship” (including songwriters) as soon as it is “fixed”. “Fixed” means that the song has to be more than just sung at a show, it has to exist in some tangible form. The song must be written down (saved to your computer is fine) or recorded. It is important to write down both the lyrics and the melody line if you opt not to record the song. Use standard music notation, not tablature because tab does not indicate duration of notes. Of course, the song has to be original – a copy of someone else’s song or portions of someone else’s song is not protected. So, if your song is “original” and “fixed” you already have copyrights!
But, having rights and protecting yourself are two very different things. For example: we all know that pedestrians have the “right of way” when we are crossing the street (especially at designated crosswalks). We have that right just because we are walking. But even the smallest child is taught to “look both ways” before crossing the street. No one wants to be hit by a car, so we protect ourselves by making sure there is no oncoming traffic before we cross the street. Most of the time, when a songwriter says they are “copyrighting a song” they really mean they are protecting their song by registering it with the Copyright Office. Songwriters do not receive more rights by registering a song. They are just making their rights easier to enforce.
Be sure to read the next post in this series: “Who Owns the Copyrights to Your Bands Songs?”.
Do you need more in depth information about copyrights? Check out this book:
It is written by attorneys that teach classes in music copyright law, but the material is presented in laymans terms.
Do you want to register the copyrights for your Christian bands music, but feel uncomfortable doing it yourself? Check out LegalZoom. They have on-line step by step forms you can fill out to walk you through the process.
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