A copyright is automatic—as soon as you create a work, which the US Copyright Office defines as an “‘original work of authorship’ that [is] fixed in a tangible form of expression,” you automatically own the copyright to that work. So isn’t that—and the frustrating fact that digital protections tend to make it difficult to back up your media or make a copy of a CD for your car—enough for the average person to know about copyrights?
Actually, it’s important for any creative person to understand copyrights so you know what rights you’re entitled to—and so you don’t inadvertently infringe on someone else’s rights along the way. Here are some of the ways copyrights may be of interest to you, some of which you may be surprised to learn.
You get to decide who uses your work.
With a copyright, you retain full creative control over your work. No one is allowed to mess with it without your permission to use your copyright. If you’re a songwriter, it should be important to you that not just anyone can record and distribute covers of your material. You have the ultimate say in who you allow to represent your work.
You get to ask for money.
You have no obligation to give someone permission to record your song for free. You’ve worked hard on your material; if someone else is going to use your work for profits, you’re entitled to ask for a share of those profits.
One effective way to do this is to use a Copyright License Agreement; you’ll keep your ownership rights to the material, and you’ll grant limited use rights to another party (e.g., using 30 seconds of a song for a commercial for two months; using your software for a period of one year). And it’s up to you whether you want to ask for a fee—and how much to ask for.
If you don’t know what constitutes copyright infringement, you may inadvertently commit it.
It’s been a long time since the ’70s and ’80s—in today’s lawsuit-happy entertainment business, sampling without permission is no longer looked kindly upon. It’s been pointed out that many of the revolutionary hip-hop albums of genre’s early days would have cost so much in licensing to make nowadays that they likely would never have been made at all.
Whatever your stance on the free music movement, current copyright laws are what they are, and you need to be aware of them to maintain your control over your work and keep from infringing on someone else’s rights to do the same.
For those tentatively interested in the free music movement but skeptical of giving up your music completely, you might look into Creative Commons licenses as a way to allow the free use of your music while requiring those using it to give you proper credit.
[Recommended Reading: “Creative Commons: Inspiring Creativity and Innovation“]