What do Musicians Need to Know About the Law?

Musicians and performing artists, especially those doing music as a career, need to know about a few areas of law. In particular: copyright, trademark, and business law.

How do I protect my musical works?

Copyright protects most musical works, giving the copyright owner the rights to determine how the music is used, and whether and how others may use the works. The basic idea is that you have the copyright rights to a song as soon as you write it down or record it. But registering with the Copyright Office offers significant benefits.

See more basics about Copyright.

In each song, there are generally two separate “works” to claim ownership over:

  1. The music: melody + lyrics (if any)
  2. The recorded performance of the song

These may or may not be the same person.

Whether you register or not, you should use a “copyright notice” let people know you intend to protect your work (though it isn’t strictly necessary).

For the music, just put it in the form of © [year first published] [your name], All Rights Reserved. Example: © 2019 Jane Doe, All Rights Reserved.

For the recorded performance, you would use ℗ instead. Example: ℗ 2019 Joe Gonzalez, All Rights Reserved.

Can I do a cover of another song?

Yes, you have the right to do a cover of any song without needing permission from the original artist. But you must pay “royalties” to the original artist of about 9 cents per unit or copy sold. You can arrange this through the Harry Fox Agency.

Can I sample another song?

Not necessarily. You generally must get permission from the copyright holder to use any part of the song. The only exceptions are if the use is considered “fair use” or if the song is in the public domain.

What if more than one person worked on a song?

This is known as a joint work, and those who collaborated on the song have joint ownership.

As joint owners, each of the creators can decide how the musical work is used. They do NOT need to agree or get permission from each other. For example, Maria can allow the song to be used in an advertisement, even if Anna objects. But Maria must pay Anna her share of the revenue from the advertisement.

Also, where one writer contributes a clearly definable part such as the lyrics, the lyricist remains a joint owner of the musical work even if her lyrics are later removed.

These are the default rules, but the creators of the work may enter into a written collaboration agreement or partnership agreement and change them. In particular, you will likely want to set out a fee split based on how much work each person did, rather than an even split.

How do I protect my performing name (stage name) or band name or logo?

This falls under trademark.

What is a Recording Agreement?

This is a particular type of contract in which a performing artist agrees to create a certain amount of music for a recording company (record label). Among other things, it sets out the compensation and royalties you will get paid, and establishes the various uses that the record label may do with the works.

What does a musician need to know about business?

Lots! If you are aiming to make music as a career, you are a business! You may even want to form an LLC or corporation. At a minimum, if you have a band or music group of some kind, you will want to create a partnership agreement. See our Guide to Business Law.


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Photo credit: Photo by John Matychuk on Unsplash

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