Sunday, July 25, 2010

Songs and copyright 3: different kinds of rights

Last week I wrote about the basic principles underlying the concept of copyright.

different mediums

This week I’ll look in more detail at the kinds of things we might want to copyright and what kinds of rights we can give people over these things.

what exactly is it that we can have rights to?

In the beginning a song exists just inside somebody’s head. It may or may not have words or harmonies. It might just be a simple tune or it may be a lush arrangement with many verses and lyrics. At this point the song writer has complete control over their creation.

At some point though, in order to communicate the song, it has to be sung to somebody or written down in a form that other people can understand. This is where it can get messy. People can then take your song and copy, steal, adapt, mis-represent, sell, or perform it whenever they like without your permission. This is where copyright comes in.

There are two basic elements to any song: the music and the lyrics. These are separate entities and each is subject to its own copyright:

  • the music as a musical work, and
  • the lyrics as a literary work.

This makes sense as it’s possible to put different words to a musical work, or to set a literary work to a different tune. Also, it’s often the case that the person who writes the music is not the same as the person who writes the lyrics. They each have independent rights over their work.

But there can be other elements to a song that also need protection depending on what people want to do with it.

what people might want to do with a song

  • record it
  • perform it live
  • record a performance
  • broadcast a recording
  • play a recording in a public place
  • make their own arrangement
  • change the lyrics
  • use the lyrics with a different tune
  • use the song in a live show
  • write it down in musical notation
  • publish it as sheet music
  • publish the lyrics
  • use the tune and add different lyrics

As a writer of a song, you will want to decide who can do each of these activities and under what arrangement (financial or otherwise).

As a user of a song, you will need to know what permissions you have and who you have to ask.

who has rights?

As you can see from the list above, there can be a lot of people involved in using a song and they all have rights that can be protected. Here is a list of some of the people who need some kind of control over their work.

The person who

  • wrote the music
  • wrote the lyrics
  • performed the song
  • recorded the song
  • wrote the song down
  • published the sheet music
  • arranged the song
  • used the song in their movie

This is by no means an exhaustive list.

it’s getting complicated!

We’ve seen that there can be many forms of a song or elements to it that might need protecting (music, lyrics, recording, sheet music, etc.) and many individuals who are connected with these (song writer, lyricist, arranger, publisher, record company, etc.).

Because of the complex world we live in, it is not necessarily the case that the person who wrote the music owns the rights to that music, nor is it necessarily the case that the person who originally recorded the song owns the rights to the use of that recording.

Because of this, any law that attempts to protect all parties involved is going to be necessarily complex and may not get everything right. To make things more difficult, we live in a global society so not only do we have the laws of our own country to consider, but also international copyright law.

Next week I’ll dip a tentative toe into the legal side of copyright. I’ll consider what you can and can’t do with a song, how long copyright lasts and how the law is enforced. I’ll be focusing on British law (since that’s where I’m based), but many of the principles are similar in other countries.


Do drop by and leave a comment if you have any copyright questions that you’d like me to answer, or if you have any comments on this series so far.

This is the third 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


Get more posts like this delivered straight to your inbox!

Click to subscribe by email.


found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may like to ...

... to say thank you.





Monthly Music Round-up: