Understanding copyrights 

As an independent singer and songwriter, doing most of the job by myself, I sometimes struggle with the topic of copyrights. 

The most recent struggle happened last September, when one of my cover song videos was abruptly removed from my YouTube channel (with a scary notice to accompany).  

I think every independent artist should know a lot about copyrights, even if the topic is so complicated and specific it is mandatory to consult a professional attorney whenever real problems arise.  

For this reason, I decided to write a little guide to copyrights for independent musicians.

To make things slightly easier, I am going to divide this article into five sections: 

  1. a general definition of copyright 
  2. copyright applied to songs 
  3. a tiny consideration about work-for-hire cases 
  4. where is the money? 
  5. can I publish cover songs without being sued? 

Please note, this is a general informative article. I am not a lawyer, therefore I am not an expert at the subject. As a songwriter, however, I studied some of the most important factors concerning this complex topic, focusing on what I practically need in my day-to-day musical activity. 

Enough said, let's get to the juice! 

What is copyright? 

Copyright consists of a group of rights related to the ownership of intellectual property (your songs, for example). These include: 

  • the right to earn money from your work (a concept that goes under the ugly name of "exploitation") 
  • the right to make copies of your work and sell them 
  • the right to perform your work in public 
  • the right to create derivative work from your original work 
  • the right to give others authorization to do one or more of the above. 

Let's have a closer look at each of these rights. 

First of all: exploitation. Yes, the law grants you the right to earn money from your music. We will see different ways to exploit your songs later on. The second and third rights are a sort of an extension of the former one, as sell copies and perform your work in public are also two ways to exploit your copyright. 

Derivative work, on the other hand, is a bit of a complex concept. Any intellectual property directly descending from another one is derivative work, although the edges on this matter are not precisely defined by the law. A clear example of derivative work is when you translate a song into another language. If you are the owner of the original copyright, you are free to do so. If you are not, you have to ask for permission from the original owner.  

The right to give this permission, as mentioned above, is yet another right connected to your own intellectual property. 

At this point, you may wonder: how do I copyright my work to benefit from the aforementioned rights? 

A lot of artists don't know that copyright applies to both published and unpublished work. It automatically applies to any intellectual property you physically produce. 

Whether you write your new song on a sheet or record it on your phone, that creation is copyrighted. On the other hand, if you just keep your ideas in your head or sing them to your buddy (without putting it down on paper or without recording it), that creation is not copyrighted. 

You may wonder: "If copyright kicks in automatically, why should I bother registering my song with a copyright office?" 

Long story short: because that registration is the best way to prove in a court you are the owner of the disputed intellectual property. 

Another doubt beginners have is: "Will I need to renew my copyright?"  

Absolutely not. Once copyrighted, your work will be protected (and it will generate the aforementioned benefits) for the rest of your life and beyond. How beyond depending on the country you reside in.  

Copyright applied to songs 

For copyright purposes, songs are formed of two different elements: the composition (including melody and lyrics) and the sound recording of it.  

When you write and record your song, you are the owner of both composition and recording rights. If you work alone, that's it!  

However, if you are in a band or if you work with a record label or have a publishing deal, things get a bit more complicated. 

Let's see who owns the rights related to the composition: 

  • the composer (who wrote the melody?) 
  • the lyricist (who wrote the lyrics?) 
  • the publisher 

In some cases (like me, for example), you are going to be these three people at once. In some other cases, you have to make sure every party involved gets their rights. 

Let's now see who owns the rights related to the sound recording (or master): 

  • the performer(s) (who played and/or sang the song?) 
  • the producer(s)  
  • the label 

Once again, you could be the only one performing, producing, and releasing the track(s). Or you could have a record deal, therefore owing to your label a certain amount of rights. 

There is another complication, though. You might agree with fellow musicians and/or with the producer on work-for-hire terms. I will explain more about this case in the following paragraph. 

Work for hire 

You will probably collaborate with a lot of professionals throughout your musical career. When it comes to working with other people, most of the times you and the other part can make your own rules. 

That's why contracts exist! 

Work for hire usually applies to intellectual property created on commission. For example, if a company hires you to write a jingle, that is work for hire. If you pay session musicians a fee for their work in a recording studio, that is work for hire. If you commission a job to a producer, whether to create arrangements or to broadly take care of the sound of your album and assist you in the studio, that is work for hire. 

Do creators employed on work-for-hire terms keep copyrights on their creations? It depends on the contract, as you can negotiate the terms at your preference.  

Where is the money? 

We quickly covered exploitation in the first paragraph but you may now wonder: "How can my songs generate money?". 

You might be surprised by the many different sources of income copyright can grant you. 

Let's see the most common, basic kind of copyright applied to songs: mechanical rights

These rights activate with every physical or digital sale of your songs, including streaming income. In other words, if your songs are on Spotify, iTunes, or any other online platform, they might be generating you money right now. 

If you are based outside the United States (sorry, American fellas!) you will also earn money every time your songs are played on the radio. 

Royalties are also earned each time you sing your songs on stage.  

To make sure you are collecting the money you are owed from online platforms, check the agreement with your distributor. To collect royalties from public performances, instead, affiliate with your local Performing Rights Organization (PRO). The Italian ones, SIAE and Soundreef, also take care of radio royalties.

You could also earn money by granting a sync license.  

In other words, you give someone else the permission to use one of your songs in synchronization with their video content (it might be a movie, a TV series, an ad, or something less fancy like a company video presentation). This way, you will earn some money for "selling" the license (how much will depend on the agreement), plus any other royalty you are entitled to each time the video is played.  

If you have a publishing deal, your publisher might take care of this for a fee and/or a percentage of your earnings. Record labels sometimes do that too. If you are completely independent, however, you take the whole pie! 

Cover songs 

Last but not least, is it legal to publish and perform cover songs? 

In a nutshell, yes. However, you might need to get a license in certain occasions. 

For public performances, at least in some countries (Italy, for example), the venue owner must pay the local P.R.O. for a license if the artist and/or band have cover songs in their setlist.  

If you are thinking about publishing cover songs online, on the other hand, you should consider two separate cases: 

  • if you're a YouTuber, there's no way of being 100% sure the cover you just uploaded is legal (more about that in a bit) 
  • if you want to publish the song on digital platforms or in physical formats, you must get a mechanical license from the copyright owner. 

Let's have a closer look at the YouTube option, a very popular one around independent artists. 

Last September I received my first copyright warning from YouTube and one of my cover songs was removed from my channel. After some research, I discovered that this happened because the publisher who owned the copyrights simply didn't accept the monetization terms offered by YouTube. 

The popular video platform allows you to post cover songs and remunerates the copyright owner by putting ads on your video (if you have reached the requirements to activate the monetization). 

Publishers and labels usually agree on these terms, so your cover is legal. Some other times, however, they do not agree, so your cover is taken down and YouTube records your first strike.  

Don't worry, though: you are entitled to three strikes before being kicked out! The three strikes, moreover, should happen within a period of three months.


We finally got to an end! 

I hope you found this little guide about copyrights for musicians useful. If you did, please feel free to share it. 

Don't forget to comment with your experiences, ideas, and even corrections (if you have any).  

Rock on!


If you prefer audio content, have a listen to the podcast!

02:00 Episode content

03:30 What is copyright?

04:00 Rights connected to intellectual property

05:00 Derivative work

06:00 When does copyright start?

06:50 Copyright in songs

08:43 Work for hire

10:15 Where's the money?

12:57 Cover songs

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