The Indie Musician’s Guide to Copyright


Image via SF Weekly

By Nathan McAlone

“Copyright” is a word that strikes fear into the heart of many an indie musician. We’ve heard horror stories from both sides in the ongoing copyright war—artists like Jeremy Lim having their work stolen and sold in the iTunes store, grandmas being sued for unfathomable sums by the RIAA for downloading a few albums. Everyone knows copyright is something they should be paying attention to, but few have a complete understanding of how it works, or the ways in which it can affect them.

With this in mind, we enlisted the help of two lawyers and a representative from YouTube to help us put together an outline of the basics of copyright, designed for an indie musician who doesn’t have the luxury of a team of lawyers.  While it shouldn’t be considered a substitute for legal advice, this guide will give you a good layman’s understanding of the things you should watch out for, both as an artist and as a consumer of music. Hopefully it can save you from some unnecessary legal headaches.

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  •!/PancakeMcKennz pancakemckennz

    This answers so many questions for me, holy crap.

  • Cletus Kasady

    If my album is protected via copyright does that include album art and every song on said album?

  • Ian Gibson, Esq.

    Glad we could shed some light on this subject for you!

  • Ian Gibson, Esq.

    Album art would likely require filing a separate copyright registration application for visual work. Each song can be included provided certain conditions are met–e.g., same author(s), same publication date, etc.

  • midas402

    Hello Ian, My name is Eric Golden & Im a aspiring producer/songwriter/performer. I was wondering several things.
    1) Where should I start?
    2) Do I register with first or ASCAP?
    3) When I register with, which form do i use? (Same question with ASCAP).
    4) At what point will i need an attorney?
    5) If I have a song, phrase, verse, or line & i change a couple words or rearrange the order of the lyrics & revise it, then which verse/song is covered?
    6) If you cant help me, or charge for advice, do you know of any non-profit attorneys?
    7) thanks for your help in advance!

  • Ian Gibson, Esq.

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks for your comment. The registration of your work with the Copyright Office and PRO of your choice (ASCAP or BMI) are unrelated, so the order of registration is not really an issue. I recommend registering both as soon as possible. If you have a song recorded (as opposed to composed on sheet music only), then look for the sound recording form to apply with the Copyright Office. Some people hire attorneys to assist with the copyright registration process to ensure it is done properly but that is not a requirement. There are a number of non-profit legal services available to you such as California Lawyers for the Arts. I hope this helps!


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