Sunday, July 18, 2010

Songs and copyright 2: basic principles of copyright

Last week I introduced the idea of songs and copyright: Even if it’s a folk song, somebody wrote it. Every song was written by somebody and you should at the very least acknowledge that fact.

guitar player

I'm singing this song for you by enggul

This week I want to look in more detail at the basic principles behind the idea of copyright and what it is trying to achieve (even though it might not succeed). In later posts I will be covering the specifics of what the law currently says and the different kinds of rights that exist.

helping and supporting song writers

Copyright is an attempt to help those who create songs to control who makes use of their work and the circumstances in which it is used.

The law of copyright attempts to provide a balance between the interests of those who invest skills, effort, time and money in the creation of works on the one hand, and those who want to use and enjoy those works on the other.

Any song writer wants their music to be heard and enjoyed by as many people as possible, but they also want to have some control over how their songs are used and disseminated.

what kind of control do song writers want?

I can think of three main rights that a song writer would like:

  1. acknowledge me – I wrote this song
  2. ask my permission – to grant the right for others to take my song and sing it, teach it, write it down, arrange it, record it, broadcast it, etc.
  3. protect my song – I don’t want anyone to steal my song and pass it off as their own

Notice that none of these necessarily involve money, although it is often the case these days that song writers are trying to make a living from their work. These three rights seem to me to be about common decency and respect.

copyright and the law

In most countries laws have been created to give basic rights such as those above to song writers.

Unfortunately, over the years, some of these laws have become draconian and are more likely to involve large multi-national corporations than individual song writers.

There is much debate on copyright laws and how they might be changed ranging from those who want to extend the laws, to those who want to relax them or dispense with them entirely.

Despite the sometimes heavy-handedness of the law, the basic principle of giving rights to song writers is still important.

There are alternatives to the main copyright laws which I will discuss in a later post (e.g. copyleft, Creative Commons). Basically they involve granting a license under intellectual property laws to authorise the use of a work in specified ways.

singers and musicians

The users of songs don’t really have the same kinds of rights to protect, but they do have their own needs: to sing songs, to arrange songs, to record songs, to play songs that they didn’t write themselves. And of course the song writers themselves welcome and encourage this. So there is a need to find a way that both parties can be satisfied. A difficult juggling act!

next week

Next week I’ll be looking at the different kinds of rights that someone might want over a particular song. For example they may want to record it, write it down, perform it, broadcast it, arrange it, etc. Also, what exactly is it that is being copyrighted? Is it a piece of sheet music or the notes themselves or a particular version on a CD?

This is the second in a series of seven posts about songs and copyright:

  1. Even if it’s a folk song, somebody wrote it
  2. Basic principles of copyright
  3. Different kinds of rights
  4. How the law works
  5. Who owns the song?
  6. How to get permission to use a song
  7. Alternatives


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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