Music Copyright - An overview and things to avoid.

The idea of copyright seems like a pretty simple idea. If it was your idea then you own it. But where does this start and where does it end?

I imagine even in the earliest days of our existence we'd have claimed ownership over a stick we found. That the simple act of sharpening the stick would be something that would make it “your” stick and that someone else sharpening their stick like ''yours'' would be ripping you off. Today when we decide that C, G, Am, F is a good chord progression we make the same claim. The difference can be summed up in one word. ART. Once we create something we widely believe that it is our intellectual property. There are so many shades of grey regarding what we own when it comes to art. Today I want to focus on 3 main areas in music copyright. Contracts, public use of music and sampling.


As soon as you write or record a piece of music you are protected under copyright law. You do not need a contract a copyright symbol or to mail your recording to yourself. However, most professionals will employ the use of a contract to ascertain who owns what in terms of a recorded piece of music?

This can be split into 4 main areas.

  • The lyrics are owned by the author of the lyrics

  • The musical composition is owned by the composer

  • The musical performance is owned by the performers

  • The recording is owned by the engineer or often by the record company

Without a contract, this is the default ownership. However, contracts can be written or negotiated

for ownership to be handed over to other parties.

As an artist, it is important to get your work out there and to have people hear and enjoy your work, but it is also important to get paid for your work. The merging of art and business has often resulted in artists signing contracts that hand all the publishing rights to the company, putting the artist in mass amounts of debt while company executives get rich off their art. This same old story has happened to so many big name musicians The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Tom Petty (to name a few) have been bled dry and left in debt. These artists were able to get back on top by learning more about the business and developing contracts that suit their needs better, but many artists are not so lucky.

So within the music industry, it is important to be aware that while your material is covered by copyright the second you write it. Contracts can stipulate that you are signing those rights over to someone else, so always read what you sign and have a lawyer present. What is Copyright?

Public use of Music

Everywhere you go today you are surrounded by music, shops, cafes, restaurants, bars even the gym. This is not just a simple case of someone making a playlist and bringing it to work. All these organisations need to have these playlists cleared and pay a fee to APRA AMCOS for the use of music on their premises.

APRA AMCOS help artists get paid for their work through a collective network, generating income through fees charged for public use of music, live music performance, radio and streaming sites in order to distribute royalties to their members. If you’re a musician, performer DJ or producer. it is really worth while signing up to APRA AMCOS ensuring that you have some income for your contribution to the music scene. As well as many other benefits in terms of travel and hospitality.


A lot of classic music has been sampled and twisted into a new sound combining stealing someone else's idea with creating your own. This has complicated the legal ramifications of music copyright even further. Sampling Laws

In the mid 70’s DJ’s in New York started to use beat matching to focus in on just the breakbeat section of a song to create a loop, often utilizing MC’s to hype the crowd. Once DJ’s started to scratch the records on purpose the turntable itself became an instrument. As this phenomenon grew, record companies were quick to jump on the band wagon and release Hip Hop to the public but this became much more complicated than rocking a house party. History of the DJ

For the most part, sampling went under the radar until the early 90’s with famous cases like MC Hammer - You Can’t Touch This (for sampling Rick James - Super Freak) and Vanilla Ice - Ice Ice Baby (for sampling Queen & David Bowie - Under Pressure). In both these cases, the outcome was for the original creators of the songs to be credited and have a share of the royalties. This lead to the current laws on sampling stating that you must contact the licensing department of the record company and the music publisher to clear the sample before you use it, then a negotiation will be made.

Sampling Cases of the early 90's

This has had a huge impact on how samples are used and need's to be taken into account for any aspiring artist or DJ planning to incorporate samples into their work.

For exploring the use of samples I have found this site extremely useful...

Who Sampled

In conclusion, there are many things to consider in terms of copyright laws within the music industry. This has its pros and cons but ultimately these laws are in place to protect our intellectual property. The industry does have a reputation of ripping artists off and for this reason, the best advice I would give is to trust no one. Remember that by supporting artists you are allowing the art you love to continue being made.


Moser, D. J., & Slay, C. (2011). Music Copyright Law. Boston, US: Course Technolgy.

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