How It Works: Music Copyright for International Use

Music is one of the best and certainly the most unique forms of art. Whereas most art pieces are visual and don’t require much time from the viewers to appreciate it, music is audial art. It makes music somewhat harder…


Music Mayhem


Posted on May 10, 2021

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Music is one of the best and certainly the most unique forms of art. Whereas most art pieces are visual and don’t require much time from the viewers to appreciate it, music is audial art. It makes music somewhat harder to perceive and appreciate. The listener needs to listen to the piece in its entirety, preferably without any breaks and stops, in order to evaluate it somehow. And just as music is complex in terms of its nature, it can also be somewhat challenging to understand in terms of copyright.

Music and Copyright

Although it wasn’t like that all the time, the copyright of music is so intense nowadays that it becomes a subject for many popular jokes and memes. For example, did you know that Eric Carmen’s top-selling hit “All by Myself” was released with a minor copyright infringement issue outside of the United States? The point of the case was that Carmen used a chord progression from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concert No. 2, which turned out to have been copyrighted outside of the U.S. Now, the Russian composer of the late 19th -early 20th century as credited as a co-writer of the hit song from the 1970s.

Sometimes, music copyright can go ridiculous. For example, in 2009, a popular Australian group Men at Work were sued by the copyright company for infringing the nursery rhyme song written in the early 1930s. The Federal Court of Australia ruled that the authors of the 1981 hit “Down Under” have based the flute riff of the song on “Kookaburra,” a small nursery rhyme written by Marion Sinclair in 1932. Now, the band and label must pay 5 percent of royalties since 2002 to the copyright company, which may be equal to several millions of dollars.

So, what’s the mechanism of work the copyright? How come that even the common lexical features of the English legal language work so differently in different situations? How does music copyright work in the international context? Why some musicians go through a chill situation for intentionally using a chord progression while others must deal with all the stress of court cases and copyright infringement issues because of the unintentional joke? Well, that’s because music copyright is a pretty specific thing and follows pretty specific rules.

  • Composers, artists, and performers do not hold the complete right over their works. This is something that you’ve likely heard before, but chances that nobody explained how exactly these works are high. No, the writers and composers of the song do have the creative rights over their work, get all the credits, and money. However, they cannot distribute their music without the permission of the music label and copyright company, which holds additional rights for distribution.
  • Copyright regulations in different countries offer different protection of the creative work and its distribution. In the copyright regulation of the United States, there is such a concept as fair use. It provides that a copyrighted work can be used without permission if it is repurposed. By means of this concept, the famous parody artist “Weird Al” Yankovic doesn’t have to ask the artists he parodies for permission to use their work as a basis. In contrast, in Europe, the concept of fair use is not strictly regulated anywhere, and each case has to be investigated separately.
  • Creative works might be copyrighted in certain countries only. As it could have been seen with the case of Eric Carmen, copyright protection might differ from country to country. As such, the chord progression from Rachmaninoff’s piano concert that Carmen used in “All by Myself” was not subject to copyright infringement in the U.S. So, the artist didn’t get into trouble right away. Only when it came to the international release, Carmen had to negotiate the terms with the Rachmaninoff estate.
  • Translated works get protected by the copyright separately. Although the details of protection terms might differ from country to country, translated songs are considered separate subjects to copyright. For example, the German versions of the Beatles’ hits “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” are credited to Lennon-McCartney along with the translators Heinz Hellmer, Jean Nicolas, and Lawrence Montague. Just like Lennon and McCartney, these guys earned their royalties and were credited on all records. So, if you’re looking for certified translation services NYC to translate your song, be ready to mention your translator to your label. Such specialists deserve a separate credit.

A Proper Protection

Music is a form of intellectual property and, thus, must be protected. While the melody, lyrics, and the sense they bring do not exist physically and cannot be sold in a store exclusively by an author, they have to be protected from unfair use. That’s why copyright regulations exist in the first place. And although they can sometimes get ridiculous, they do their work and, in most cases, stand on guard against music piracy and other possible cases of unfair use and distribution.

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