Copyrights Revisited

Judging by the emails I get and the posts that I find on the forum, I get the feeling that the concept of Copyright is not clear to everyone. This, of course, is not surprising. So, before anything else, I think it’s time we delve a bit more into the whole concept, of what a copyright is and how it works.

Copy Right = Copyright. Or does it?

The major problem people tend to have with the concept of copyright is the word itself. What does copyright say to you? Probably: the right to copy. Because of the way English has evolved, this tends to be the current tendency.

However, “copy” also refers to an original manuscript:

copy: 4 Manuscript or other matter to be reproduced in type

This definition (the “4” referring to the fact that it is the 4th definition of the word) is from the Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary, International Edition. This is the definition referred to in the word “copyright”. Hence we now have: the right of a manuscript. Clearer? I didn’t think so.

I couldn’t begin to tell you how copyright is translated in most languages, but, as the concept of Intellectual Property dates back to the Renaissance, French or Italian should do. Being French, I will use the French translation (or, probably, original).

In French, we say: le droit d’auteur. Literally, this means: the right of the author (droit means right as in the right to do something and not the direction, while auteur means author). Therefore, “the right of the author,” or the Author’s Rights. Starting to make more sense?

copyright: The exclusive statutory right of authors, composers, playwrights, artists, publishers, or distributors to publish and dispose of their works for a limited time.

This is again from the same dictionary.

It’s still not all that clear, but as soon as you start thinking of it as the Author’s Rights, it all becomes clearer. The copyright refers to what the Author (can be composer also, or any variation of Author/Composer) can do with his material. It simply points to the fact that all rights belong to the Author.

Now this is automatic. The moment a musical piece is complete, you own the copyright, the right to dispose of it any way you wish without having to ask anyone’s permission.

* It’s important to note that there are a few exceptions to this, mainly in the case of jingles: music or songs which are written specifically for advertising. As you get paid to write these pieces, the copyright is generally owned by the person paying you. If you do this kind of work, make sure you read your contract and that this point is clear.

What you do next is protect your intellectual property. I’ve talked about the envelope method in my previous article on the subject. This is not a foolproof method and many people will tell you it won’t stand up in court.

It may stand up in court and maybe it won’t. The idea is not to use this method as full protection, but as front line protection: until you register your copyrights.

Registration is the best protection you can get. It can be expensive, but it is worth the protection. With this method, nobody can steal any of your songs and you have complete proof of ownership.

For Canadians: good news! As I’ve mentioned before, registering your copyrights with the Canadian government is not worth the price of the paper the certificate is printed on. However, our American friends have thought of us poor artists. It is now legal to register your copyrights in the USA.

You can register a single song or a collection of songs on a CD or tape (I strongly recommend CD as tapes can and will deteriorate. Also, the songs can be just voice and an instrument that you’ve recorded in your bedroom) for $20.

You need a form called a “Circular 56: Copyright for Sound Recordings.”

The address is:

US Copyright Office
Library of Congress
101 Independence Ave. SE
Washington, DC 20559-6000

Tel.: 202-707-3000

email: [email protected]