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Music Copyright & Performers Rights in Sound Recordings

Guidance for recording musicians on copyright and performers' rights.

Last updated: 03 October 2023

What is copyright?

Copyright is the right to prevent copying so the owner of copyright can prevent others copying their work without their permission. In the UK, the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, as amended, (“the Act”), gives creators further important rights over their creations, including five primary infringements of copying, which are:

  • Issuing copies to the public
  • Renting or lending the work to the public
  • Performing, showing or playing the work in public
  • Communicating the work to the public
  • Making an adaptation of the work or doing any of the above in relation to an adaptation. Learn more on Arranging and Copying.

In addition, the Act creates a number of secondary infringements:

  • Importing, possessing or dealing with an infringing copy.
  • Providing means for making infringing copies.
  • Permitting the use of premises for an infringing performance.
  • Providing apparatus for an infringing performance.

Who is the owner of copyright?

The author of the work – that is the person who created the work – is the first owner of copyright in it. So, as regards to the music (a musical work), the composer would be first owner of copyright, and as regards to lyrics (a literary work), the writer would be the first owner. If you are recording music then please take extra care as the owner of the music and lyrics is not automatically the owner of the recording.

Regarding the following, the Act specifies:

  • A sound recording: the author is the producer.
  • A film: the authors are the producer and principal director.
  • A broadcast: the author is the person making the broadcast.
  • A typographical arrangement of a published edition: the publisher is the author.

“Producer” is defined in the Act as meaning – in relation to a sound recording or a film – the person by whom the arrangements necessary for the making of the sound recording or film are made.

Where a work is created jointly, there can be joint authorship. But where a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work, or a film, is made by an employee in the course of their employment, the employer is first owner of copyright, unless the contrary has been agreed.

However, works can be assigned from one owner to another, provided that the assignment is in writing and is signed by the person assigning the work. Most publishing contracts will assign copyright from the composer/writer to the publisher so thereafter the publisher is the copyright owner of the work.

What works can acquire copyright?

Copyright can subsist in:

  • Original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works.
  • Sound recordings, films and broadcasts.
  • The typographical arrangement of published editions.

Copyright can also exist in an arrangement or orchestration of a musical work, quite separately from the copyright in the original musical work.

If ‘A’ writes an original composition then ‘B’ helps him arrange it, A will remain owner of the copyright in the original version, while A and B can be joint owners of copyright in the new arrangement.

However, any ‘adaptation’ of a musical, literary or dramatic work will be an infringement of copyright in the original work if made without the copyright owner’s consent.

Since an arrangement or transcription of a musical work is an adaptation you will need the consent of the composer of the original work (or if the work has been assigned to a publisher, the consent of that publisher) to make an arrangement of it.

If A wants to use a particular arranger B to make an arrangement of A’s work, an agreement can be made between A and B that some share of copyright in the arrangement (but not in the original work) will be attributed to B.

This is a matter of negotiation, but it is important to remember that arrangers, producers and orchestrators have no automatic right to arrange your copyright work without your permission, and that you have no right to arrange someone else’s copyright work without their permission.

Often permission to make a new arrangement is only granted on the basis that 100% of the new arrangement is assigned to the original composer (or their publisher).

Qualification requirements for copyright

Qualification for copyright protection under the Act is by reference to the author or to the country of first publication. The provisions are rather complex and you should always take expert advice.

Essentially, to gain copyright protection under the Act, either the author of the work must be a British citizen, British national, British subject, etc, or domiciled or resident in the UK. Or the country of first publication of the work must have been the UK or some other country to which the Act applies.

When does a work acquire copyright?

In the UK copyright in a work comes into existence when the work is created, unlike some countries such as the USA where copyright requires registration to gain full protection.

However, since there is no copyright in an idea, the Act spells out that musical works, literary works and dramatic works only come into existence as works capable of copyright protection once the work has been recorded, for instance, in writing or in audio or audiovisual format.

How long does copyright last?

  • Literary works (lyrics): the life of the author plus 70 years
  • Musical works (music): the life of the composer plus 70 years. But as regards works of joint authorship or co-authorship the life of the last surviving author or composer plus 70 years
  • Sound recordings: 70 years from the end of the calendar year of release if first released after 1963
  • Broadcasts: 50 years from the end of the calendar year of broadcast
  • Films: 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the death occurs of the last to die of: principal director; screenplay author; dialogue author; composer of music specially created for and used in the film
  • Typographical arrangement of published editions (for example a music score): 25 years from the end of the calendar year in which the edition was published

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