Ask the Entertainment Lawyer: “What is a Copyright?”

“What is a copyright?” is one of the most common questions amongst artists and intellectuals seeking to claim ownership over their works, and who better to answer than Miami’s premier entertainment lawyer? In laymen’s terms, a copyright is the legal right to own your music or other creative work. This right to ownership is even memorialized in the Constitution, which says that Congress has the power to “promote the Progress of… useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors … the exclusive Right to their respective Writings.” Of course, when that magnificent article was drafted the writers were mainly referring to written works, but the basic principle of an exclusive right of ownership provided by a copyright extends to cover artwork, musical compositions, photographs, movies, TV shows, architectural works and many other “works” including sound recordings!

Components of a Music Copyright

It is essential to their careers that musicians know that every musical work includes TWO copyrights. One of these copyrights belongs to the composer of the song, the actual notes and lyrics, while the second applies to the actual recorded piece such as a .WAV or .mp3 file of the composition’s performance.

We can use Irving Berlin’s composition of “White Christmas” to illustrate. Once Irving Berlin had written the musical composition of “White Christmas” he had created “intellectual property” rights for himself – a copyright applying to the musical composition. By recording the composition on a scratch track, he would create a second, new copyright for the recorded performance of the previously written composition. In both instances, “White Christmas” was converted from a set of thoughts in Irving’s head to a piece of property which he owned.

Since Irving owned “White Christmas” – just as you might own your car – it was up to him whether to let anyone else use it. Composers make a living by “licensing” their musical compositions to others through entertainment lawyers. These “licensees” of the composition copyright use their licenses to make money in different ways. Record labels, advertisers, movie producers, radio stations etc. use a song in various creative works and sometimes even blend the composition with other creative works (like a movie score). In return for their use of an artist’s work, like Irving’s “White Christmas,” the copyright owner is paid with either up-front cash or “royalties” as a percentage of money the licensee makes using the copyright license.