Artists, do you know your rights?
“I’m a musician,” you might be thinking. “I’m just supposed to write, perform, and record songs. Why should I care about the legalities?”
In an ideal world, you’re right, you would never have to worry about things like copyrights, trademarks, and the like. But unfortunately, it’s pretty essential to have a working knowledge of at least the basics.
There is a lot of information out there, and some of it can be hard to understand. That’s why we’ve tried to simplify and provide you with some of the most important things you should know.
Let’s Talk About Intellectual Property
First, let’s start with what intellectual property is. Oxford Languages defines it as “a work or invention that is the result of creativity, such as a manuscript or a design, to which one has rights and for which one may apply for a patent, copyright, trademark, etc.”
We can simplify this a bit: intellectual property is any product that comes from human intellect. So those songs you right? They’re your intellectual property.
Of course, you want to protect that intellectual property – the last thing you want is for someone to take your creative ideas, pass them off as their own, and profit off of them.
But how do you do that?
Well, there are four different ways to protect your intellectual property: trade secrets, patent, copyright, and trademark.
Trade secrets are “specific, private information that is important to a business.” It gives that business an edge in its marketplace. Some examples of this type of intellectual property include recipes, new inventions, software, and sometimes even digital marketing strategies.
When you have trade secret protections, no one can copy or steal your intellectual property. However, trade secrets are a little different from other protections: you don’t need an official registration to have your trade secrets protected. But you do have to “actively behave in a manner that demonstrates their desire to protect the information.
There are plenty of trade secrets in the industry, but specifically, things like fan lists, venue contracts, and other closely guarded information fall into this category.
You might be a little more familiar with patents. According to the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), this is “a limited duration property right relating to an invention, granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office in exchange for public disclosure of the invention.”
When you hold a patent, it means the law prevents others from selling or making the product.
As musicians, you probably won’t need a patent: songs don’t qualify as inventions. However, if you were to create your own musical instrument, you would definitely benefit from a patent.
No doubt, you’ve heard of copyrights once, twice or a thousand times as a creative, and it will probably be the most relevant form of intellectual property for you. But what does it really mean?
A copyright protects original works of authorship. This includes literary works, art, and music, among other things.
Here’s what you need to know:
The moment you create something, it is yours. This means copyright protections are automatic. As such, you don’t have to register your piece of music to receive copyright protections – it’s already there. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t formally register a copyright. If someone infringes on your copyright and you’d like to take legal action, you’ll have to register it anyway.
Unlike patents and copyrights, which largely protect fleshed out inventions and creations, trademarks apply more to phrases, words, or symbols. These are used to distinguish a certain brand or product from another.
For musicians, registering a trademark provides legal entitlement to phrases or lyrics. This means the trademark owner has the ability to stop the sale of any items that appear to originate from them or their lyrics.
Trademarks also come in handy when it comes to names. Band names, stage names, and even real names can be trademarked.
Who Handles These Rights?
You might not realize it, but Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) are extremely valuable. Of course, depending on your location, there are different groups and organizations that will handle these things. Here’s who to look out for in the United States and the United Kingdom specifically.
In the US
In the United States, PROs primarily collect and distribute royalties for artists. While this is their main function, they also handle other issues, such as fighting for higher royalties. They are essential for artists who are interested in registering, tracking, and collecting royalties.
Here are some organizations to be aware of:
- Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI)
- The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP)
- Global Music Rights (GMR)
In the UK
Things are a little different in the United Kingdom. When looking to license your music, there are two main organizations to be aware of:
- PRS for Music
While both work to ensure artists receive proper royalties, there are some differences. PRS for Music is a society of songwriters, publishers, and composers. They license the use of members’ music and lyrics. PPL, on the other hand, specifically works on licensing music to be played in public, broadcast on radio or TV, or used on the internet, all on behalf of record companies and artists.
What Happens When You Don’t Secure Your Rights?
It’s a sad but common fate for artists. When they don’t know their rights, it’s hard to properly secure them. Unfortunately, this means many artists – even some of the most popular ones in the history of music – have faced plenty of issues because they didn’t have legal ownership of their own music.
Here are some famous cases to be mindful as you work on your own music.
During the 1960s, John Fogerty was known as the lead singer and songwriter of Creedence Clearwater Revival. By the 1980s, during his solo career, he was sued by his former record label, Fantasy, due to publishing rights. According to Fantasy, Fogerty’s song “The Old Man Down the Road” had the same chorus as the CCR song “Run Through the Jungle.” Both songs were written by Fogerty, but the latter’s publishing rights belonged to Fantasy. As such, Fogerty was sued by Fantasy, essentially for plagiarizing himself. In the end, the singer was able to prove the two songs were distinct compositions and won the case.
In 1963, the Beatles’ music catalog found its home in the hands of Dick James and his company Northern Songs. However, six years later, James sold his stake to ATV Music, giving this company the rights to the British band’s music. John Lennon and Paul McCartney tried to outbid ATV but ultimately lost. In 1985, Michael Jackson bought the ATV catalog, including the Beatles’ music. Some 250 songs were then in the hands of Sony Music when Jackson teamed up with the music company. By 2017, there was still drama surrounding the Beatles’ catalog: Paul McCartney filed a lawsuit to try and regain rights to his own songs under the US Copyright Act of 1976, which states that artists can reclaim copyright from publishers after 35 years.
Prince was well-known as a fighter for artists’ rights. In later years, Prince went on record saying he wouldn’t encourage any young artists to sign contracts, referring to record contacts as “slavery.” He expressed this same sentiment in his battle with Warner Bros. during the 1990s. He protested his record label, changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, and performed with the word “slave” written on his face, all in an attempt to obtain ownership of his catalog. In 1996, after being released from his contract with the label, he received ownership of all future recordings.
These cases prove that it doesn’t matter who you are or how famous you become, without taking proper action to secure your rights, you can find yourself missing out on royalties and fighting legal battles. This isn’t something you want to risk. If you’re worried about your rights as an artist, do your research and speak to a lawyer, so you don’t find yourself missing out on what is rightfully yours.