For the past 14 or 15 years I have taught Copyright Law and Music Industry Law in the Music Business program at Trevecca Nazarene University. The class is a lot of fun and I always have a great bunch of students. Occasionally, a student will turn in a paper that I find interesting, either because he or she has covered a topic that I don’t know much about or in the case of the paper below, because the student has taken a really novel approach to an issue. Everyone has heard about some of the myths of copyright law but I think that my student Jenni Lee Merritt has done an exceptional job of creating a compendium of these myths. With Ms. Merritt’s permission, I am reprinting her paper:
Music Industry Myths: Copyright Edition
Many myths surround the music industry today. From the ever so popular “You’ll never make it,” to “It’s easy to get a record deal,” people will repeat whatever they have been told, especially concerning the music industry. It’s one of, if not the most publicized and talked about industries today so of course there are going to be misconceptions about what actually takes place on the inside. People love to act like they know what they are talking about when in reality they haven’t the slightest idea what they are talking about. In particular people who comment on the on-goings of the music industry today who are not even remotely connected to it. One topic in particular that seems to have developed quite a resume of fictional facts is that of copyright law as it pertains to the music industry. Everyone wants to be considered an expert so they pass along false information and pretty soon you have a well developed list of myths. From the “poor man’s copyright” to the truth behind Fair Use this paper will address some of the major miscommunications concerning copyright and how it works with the modern music industry.
The poor man’s copyright is not a proper way for an artist to prove they are the owner of any copyrighted material. This method of copyright states that a person takes a copy of the work they wish to have a copyright on, mail it to their self, and keep the sealed envelope with the postmark date on it as evidence. Or in more recent times just copy it to themselves via email or another method of file sharing. This method of proving they are the sole creator of a work is not going to hold up. It is too easy to find ways around this, such as mailing an unsealed envelope, getting the date on it and then simply sticking whatever they want into it at a later date. Plus in today’s world of technology there are more and more ways of faking dates on documents. If an artist is truly concerned about their work being stolen then they should go ahead and register it for fool-proof evidence to use in a case, if there ever comes a time they need to. This way they will be able to avoid a possible profit loss due to someone else stealing their work and getting away with it because they will have the precise evidence they need.
In addition to the poor man’s copyright myth is another one that says you have to register your work to have it copyrighted. This is false. Copyright is an actual right, or better described a group of rights. These rights include being able to make copies of the work, make derivative works, distribute copies of the work to the public by sale, rental, lease, or lending, perform the work publicly, display the work publicly, perform the work by means of a digital audio transmission in the case of sound recordings. These rights belong to the author of the work unless and until the decided they want to sign those rights away to someone else. Which it is common to see artists do in publishing, and other kinds of agreements with various branches of the music industry. These rights come into play as soon as the author has made a tangible copy of their work. Registering the copyrighted work will only grant the author of the work additional rights such as, being able to collect the compulsory license royalties, being able to file an infringement case for any losses the infringement may have caused you, including attorney’s fees (if you win the case) and putting the burden of proof on the party who has infringed upon your work. These are all very useful tools if you are planning on actively using the work in question.
Another myth is the idea that a name or title can be copyrighted. This is not true. However, there are other pieces of legislation that encompass what you can and cannot do with a name or title of a work. A name or title can be trademarked in place of a copyright. Also if a name or title is used in a mis leading way, this is considered “passing off.” This term deals with the public’s perception of a name or title. An example of “passing off” would be if an upcoming artist or band were to use a name or title in order to make people think they were associated with a different successful artist or company. Titles and names cannot be copyrighted because in reality there are many titles that don’t and will not interfere with each other. One example being country artist Jake Owen and pop artist Katy Perry both releasing singles called “The One That Got Away.” In this case both songs were very different and upon listening to them it is easy to conclude they are about two completely different circumstances so questioning whether one was a derivative work is out of the question. Also pertaining to these two works they were written in two entirely different genres and attract two different fan bases so one did not interfere with how successful the other was.
Going along with the idea that a name cannot be copyrighted is the idea that a band’s name belongs to whoever started using it first. This is only true for names that are not registered trademarks if considerable goodwill and reputation in the market have been built in respect of the brand itself. Simply but if your band is a house hold name and for some reason still does not have a trademark then no one can say they are use because this would be mis-leading the public. If another group is using a particular band’s name, that band will have to prove two things. The first being that the copy-cat band is indeed misguiding the public by “passing off” as their group. The second being that their group is suffering losses because of the emergence of this new band of the same name.
“If there’s no profit, it doesn’t violate the copyright.” This is another false statement that is commonly said about copyrighted material. Just because an individual doesn’t make a profit off of the material they are copyrighting doesn’t make it legal. In most cases this usually makes things worse for the copyright owner. Since someone can get the copyrighted material out of a video posted on YouTube, or from a link someone posted on their web page then they most certainly are not going to pay for the same work. This in turn hurts the owner of the copyright and others involved in marketing the copyrighted material. People have tried to become smart and have started to post along with their video and links that they did not intend to infringe upon a copyright and some will also offer a link to the source of where they obtained the work. Unfortunately intention is not something you have to have in order to be guilty of copyright infringement.
One of the more ridiculous claims is that if a work is available on the internet then it is public domain. This misconception probably originates from a false understanding of what public domain really is. This does not mean that the work is displayed where it is readily available to the public, such as on the internet. Likewise the public domain isn’t a physical place. It is more a statement. A statement, that when applied to a work in question, holds true then makes the work available for public usage without payment to the author. The requirements for something to be in the public domain are that, first of all, the work is no longer under copyright. The second statement being that it failed to meet the requirements to be copyrighted in the first place. This then makes the work available to the public without payment to a copyright owner.
Fair Use is not a myth. However with the way people perceive it as a way to legally get away with copyright infringement is. Fair use is a tricky line to walk. The U.S. fair use exemption was created to allow things such as commentary, parody, news reporting, research and education about copyrighted works without the permission of the author. No more of the copyrighted work then is absolutely necessary to achieve an individual’s goal under one of these topics is allowed. Even if the individual does need a certain portion of a certain work for their purpose which falls under one allowed by the fair use exemption, if the portion of the work they use lessens the commercial value of the work then it is still deemed copyright infringement.
“It was my idea so I have the copyright.” Ideas are not able to be copyrighted. If an artist tells another artist his idea for a song and the other artist writes the song first then the other artist is the one who has a claim over that copyright. The only time an artist could possibly argue that their work has been infringed upon when it comes to an idea is if a “derivative work” is made. Works that are derived from another work are the sole property of the author of the original work. In the music industry though this would be hard to prove. The artist would have to have substantial evidence that the work in question was created as a direct derivative from their original work.
“Copyright infringement isn’t an actual crime.” Most copyright cases are civil cases and involve lawsuits instead of prosecution. However in the nineties a violation of copyright involving more than ten copies and a value of over twenty-five hundred dollars was made a felony. This is a fairly new and untested statue of the law. Since it is out there though it is possible for people to see copyright cases take on a whole new shape. It is highly unlikely a lot of these cases will come through though because the courts have much more important business to take care of then copyright infringement.
The myths that surround the idea of copy right are far more then listed here. Hopefully though this dispels the most common ones. It is easy to get caught up in whatever is posted or whatever someone states as fact. Finding credible resources is always key when discovering the truth behind the inter-workings of the music industry and even more specifically the rules and regulations regarding copyrights and how they apply to and aid artists today.