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Music Copyright Basics

Written by Samuel O'Toole on 10 October 2016

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Copyright it a type of intellectual property right that subsists in different types of works. Music involves copyright in many ways, for example, a song may have copyright existing in the actual sound recording, the same song will have copyright in the lyrics and the arrangement of the notes of the music will also be subject to copyright.


It should be noted that copyright can only subsist in works that are original and have been recorded; this may be electronically for the sound recording, however, the lyrics and musical notes may also be electronically recorded or even scribbled down on paper.
The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 provides that a “literary work” is any work, other than a dramatic or musical work, which is written, spoken or sung. Furthermore, a “musical work” is a work consisting of music, exclusive of any words or action intended to be sung, spoken or performed with the music.


In the case of Sawkins v Hyperion Records 2005, the Court of Appeal was asked what constitutes “music”. It was held that effort, time and skill that was spent when making a performing edition of a work that was out of copyright was enough to qualify as an original musical work. Therefore, the new performing edition of the out of copyright work was entitled to copyright for the purposes of the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988. This was notwithstanding the fact that Sawkins worked on the existing work that had been composed by another person, that was out of copyright and no new music was to be added.


The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 provides that a “sound recording” is, believe it or not, a recording of sounds. Thankfully, the 1988 Act does provide a more detailed definition: “a recording of the whole or any part of a literary, dramatic or musical work, from which sounds reproducing the work or part may be recorded”. Therefore, a sound recording of a song will have a separate copyright aside from the actual music of the song. It must be noted that a sound recording, of a sound recording does not create a new copyright.
Furthermore, if the sound recording is incorporated into a music video, this will create a new copyright; the sound track will be treated as part of the film and as such will benefit from the films copyright.


Copyright can be infringed in a number of ways; most obviously copying a copyrighted work will amount to infringement. Other forms of infringement exist such as making the work available to the public or communicating the work. However, if the copyright holder has granted permission or a licence (usually for a fee) then these acts will not amount to infringement.
Therefore, one song can create multiple copyrights. It is these copyrights that when licensed can make money whilst protecting your work. If you would like any advice please give us a call or send us a message.


(Please bear in mind that we are only offering advice in relation to music law, unfortunately Lawdit does not play any instruments).

If you'd like to know more about this article please send an email to Thomas Mould quoting the article title and any questions you might have, alternatively call the office number on 02380 235 979 or send an enquiry through our contact form.

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