Copyright laws are important to musicians because they protect the creative content and intellectual properties that generate income. The government recognizes the value of creative content, which incentives artists and musicians to continue to create new work. When creativity is encouraged, the public benefits because there is more art available to them. While understanding copyright is important, it can also be intimidating. Where do you even begin?

Let’s start with the basics. What is a copyright? It is the legal right given to the author or creator of the works. The owner(s) have exclusive rights, including the right to publish the work, control the copy, prepare derivative (or adapted) works, perform their work and make it available online. A copyright is created the same time that a work is created. However, it is important to register for an official copyright if you want it enforced in court.

Registering your copyright is easy. Simply go to Fill out the application, make a payment for the copyright, and submit two copies of your recording or musical composition.

According to Jon Garron, an attorney from Gallagher, Callahan, and Gartrell, “Copyright registration provides the right to seek attorney’s fees and statutory damages. Registration will be required prior to filing a lawsuit to enforce the copyright.” To protect your public performance rights and collect royalties for such usage, publishers, authors and composers are recommended to sign up with one of the Performing Rights Organizations, and all their copyrighted works should be registered by one of these organizations in the U.S.:

1. ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers)
2. BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.)
3. SESAC (formerly known as the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers)
4. GMR (Global Music Rights)—This is a new Performance Rights Society established in 2013.

It may seem like an extreme jump to assume that you will need to go to court because someone stole your music, but this actually happens all the time. One famous case that went to court for plagiarism involved Vanilla Ice and Queen. If you’ve ever thought that the intro bass line to “Ice Ice Baby” sounded familiar, then you would be right. Vanilla Ice sampled Queen’s “Under Pressure” and changed the rhythm line slightly in hopes that he could avoid credits, royalties, license, or even permission to use it. This case was eventually settled out of court and proper credit given where it was due.

This brings us to another topic; copyrights for cover songs. Cover songs are a popular portion of contemporary music. Cover bands like Mac Sabbath and Rumors exist for the sole purpose of revitalizing old school classics. While covers are fun, they are still someone else’s content. Playing their music in your bedroom won’t cost you a penny, but once you perform in public or make a recorded copy, then you are liable to pay the original artist “mechanical rights” for using their material. How much will you have to pay? The ASCAP says that for public performances, the cost depends on the how the music is performed (live, recorded or audio only or audio/visual) and the size of the establishment or potential audience for the music. Rates are different if you are playing for a hole in the wall restaurant to a handful of people versus playing at a concert venue, where the cost will depend on ticket sales revenue and seating capacity of the facility.

Another option if you want to perform another musician’s works with more legal flexibility than a copyright is to go through Creative Commons, an organization that has developed a series of licenses that allows copyright holders to retain control over their works, but still make them available under terms more favorable than copyright allows. You have the ability to perform their music under one or multiple licenses, depending on what they want to allow. They may want their music only used non commercially, or they may allow adaptations to be made as long as the original creator is credited. Creative Commons is also available to you if you would like to contribute a work under public domain so others can easily access it and perform

This is by no means an extensive list on the ins and outs of the legal system when it comes to the music industry. However, this is a good place to start researching the subject so that you can protect yourself and the art that you invest in.