The question of what is covered by a copyright has been the subject of countless lawsuits. While this is great business for Lawyers, it can be costly for musicians. Many big-name acts have been sued for copyright infringement, some successfully, some not. It can be very difficult for a judge and jury to understand and decide about infringement cases, so often they will hire experts to explain exactly how the law is supposed to work and what music or other creative content is protected.
For example, titles of songs, rhythms, musical styles, and chord progressions (harmony) have all been deemed to be not copyrightable. Melodies and lyrics are protected, but short snippets may not be. The courts don’t always agree on what should be covered. For example, there have been many high profile cases related to sampling, and there has been a split between the 6th and the 9th Federal Circuit (appeals) courts.
On the one side the court applied the “Bright Line” rule, which means use of any sample from a previous recording is illegal. The other court claims that a sample must be recognizable to the “average” person (whatever that means) in order to be infringement. This means if you modify a sound or sample from another recording to the point it isn’t recognizable by most people, you are not infringing. This is a question which ultimately must be decided by the Supreme Court.
Since music is an art form which borrows heavily from what came before, any lack of clarity in the law poses potential problems for musicians, Songwriters, Producers, and Composers. What exactly can we use? What should we avoid using? In some cases it might be clear, but many situations will feel a bit fuzzy as to what’s allowed.
What is considered Music Copyright infringement?
According to the US Copyright office, Copyright infringement is when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the Copyright owner. This can happen in many ways, for example if a song is sampled and then used in another commercial recording, or music is re-recorded by someone else and offered for sale without express permission from the composer and the payment of licensing fees.
There are a few examples of when a work can be used without payment of permission, such as with “Fair Use.” An example of Fair Use might be a teacher using a song in a class to teach students. Many cases of Copyright Infringement end up in court, and the laws can be complex in their interpretation and application. Among other things a court might consider in determining infringement are the amount used, the nature of the Copyrighted work, and the value of the Copyrighted work in the market.