Music Industry

A super-oversimplification of music rights ownership and why it matters

Frequent contributor to this site and Geeks&Beats writer Amber Healey gives us this primer on music rights ownership and why so much of the music industry depends on sorting things out.

Once upon a time, musicians owned the songs they wrote and/or performed.

They still do, but in many cases, determining how much of the song, and which portion (lyrics, melody, copyright, etc), and how much that bit is worth, is a big ol’ ball of mess.

We all know more people are streaming music than purchasing whole albums these days. We all kind of understand that even streaming pays musicians, albeit just some tiny fraction of a cent.

Let’s try to take a closer look at the mess, shall we? In no particular order of importance:


Right off the bat, copyright is broken into two categories for music: There are musical compositions — think sheet music or guitar tabs — and then there are sound recordings.

The musical composition is typically owned by the person or group who put the melody, harmony, instrumentation and, if applicable, lyrics down on paper or a recording.

The sound recording is the fixed and published work — a completed album, song, theatrical musical, etc.

If Elton John writes a song but Neil Young performs it, they could both have copyright ownership of that particular song.

“Copyright in a sound recording is not the same as, or a substitute for, copyright in the underlying musical composition,” according to the U.S. Copyright Office.

“Although they are separate works, a musical composition and a sound recording may be registered together on a single application if ownership of the copyrights in both is exactly the same. To register a single claim in both works, give information about the author(s) of both the musical composition and the sound recording,” the office says.

Filing a copyright application protects the creator, establishing ownership and providing legal options should someone else try to say they wrote a song you spent five years perfect. If you own the composition rights to a song and someone else wants to use it, or re-imagine the song, they might need to contact you in order to get permission to use your work, which sometimes comes with a royalty payment.

Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37907 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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