Do Record Labels Own Copyright?

After you have written a song and produced it under a record label, who actually owns the song's copyright? Is it you, the musician or the record label? If you are in this dilemma, this blog post is for you.

When it comes to music, copyright issues can be notoriously complex. This article answers this question to give you a better understanding of copyright with respect to record labels. It also covers some of the most frequently asked questions (FAQs) regarding copyright matters. 

Let's dive right in.

Do Record Labels Own Copyright?

Do Record Labels Copyright Songs?

Record labels copyright any song produced under their label.

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, a song is a combination of two types of works: sound recording and musical work, both of which are independently protected by copyright.

  • As the artist, you own the copyright to the lyrics, vocals, and other content when you compose a song. This is known as the composition copyright. 
  • When you approach a record label and sign a deal with them, the company will own the copyright to the recorded sound for a set length of time. This type is referred to as the master recording copyright

In other words, when you sign a record deal with a label, you'll share your music copyright with them. The amount of copyright to be shared depends on the record label and is usually stipulated in the agreement document. 

But why is it necessary for record labels to own the copyright? 

Why Do Record Labels Own Copyright?

As a recording artist, you'll want your music to be played on every platform and to reach as many ears as possible. This is easily achieved when you are under a record company. 

The role of a record label is mainly to groom an artist, promote them, and produce and distribute their music to platforms in order to earn royalties. Most record labels use their own funding for these functions. 

An artist signs away their master recording copyright in exchange for this financing. The recording company will, therefore, have exclusive rights to exploit the music however they see fit. 

These rights enable the record label to reproduce and distribute the music by making and selling copies to the masses. This is how they recoup their investment and make profits.

Besides making money through reproduction and distribution, the record company and the artist are afforded the rights to produce alternative versions of the music, such as remixes. 

The record label is also able to control any sampling of the music. This way, they can deal with anyone infringing on their ownership rights.

What Happens When Someone Infringes a Music Copyright?

What Happens When Someone Infringes a Music Copyright?

If someone uses your intellectual, artistic work without your permission, they infringe your copyright. In a bid to reclaim ‘Actual Damages,’ you can sue them even if the copyright is not registered.

The first thing that will happen will be a ruling against the distribution of the music in question. The case will then be determined in a liberal court. If found guilty of willful infringement, the infringers will be charged up to $150,000 for each work stolen. 

It’s important to note that a single work can have several copyrights from different parties. For instance, a song could have rights to the lyrics, music, and recording belonging to three parties. 

This is common because, after a song has been produced, it can be challenging to establish whether it belongs to the vocalist, producer, or both. So, the production is often copyrighted in what is known as ‘sound recording.’ 

When Are Copyrights Created?

When Are Copyrights Created?

Copyright protection begins the moment you fix your notes, melodies, and chords in a tangible form. But this could mean different things depending on the type of copyright in question. 

If you are a composer, your work is copyright-protected from the moment you record the lyrics on paper or document them in any other form – even if it’s a single tweet. On the other hand, the master recording copyright is effective as soon as a sound recording is fixed in any perceivable medium, such as a digital track, tape, disk, and so on. 

However, even though copyright is created from the time you fix the musical work, it’s essential to ensure the copyright is imposed. Artists and record companies in the U.S. must seek additional copyright registration from the Copyright Office to get complete protection. 

What Does Music Copyright Law Protect?

By law, copyright is a form of intellectual property – meaning they are intangible creations of the human brain. 

While music copyright helps recording artists and companies track the different types of royalties to which they are entitled, it’s essential to understand what vices they protect against. 

  1. Protection Against Reproduction

By law, you cannot reproduce copyrighted work by printing CDs and vinyl for sale or making it available for public streaming. The right to reproduce is held by the copyright owner only. 

That’s why streaming services must acquire licensing from copyright owners before listing any songs in their catalog. They pay returns to master and composition copyright owners via streaming payouts and mechanical royalties, respectively. 

  1. Protection Against Derivation

To create a cover or remix for a given song, you’ll need to seek permission from the original composer and recording company first. In most cases, derivative works are commonly used in advertisements, video games, TV shows, movies, and other environments. 

Such third parties must seek a synchronization license from the composition copyright owners or a master use license from the master copyright holders, depending on the type of work they want. 

  1. Protection Against Public Distribution

Similarly, music copyright protects against the distribution of an artist’s work to the public. The right to distribute recorded music has been covered by streaming payouts for an extended period now. 

If you own the copyright to the composition or recording of a song, you have the right to sue third parties that sell created copies of your work without your authority. 

  1. Protection Against Performing the Work Publicly

The music copyright in the U.S gives the artist an exclusive right to perform their work publicly. In any case, this doesn’t imply performing them live on stage but rather playing the music on any public platform. They include radio/TV shows, audio-streaming services like Spotify, and public spaces such as live shows, bars, or clubs. 

In most instances, both the composers and recording companies hold the performance copyrights. However, unlike most of the world, master owners in the United States cannot claim royalties generated from public performances in the country. 

  1. Protection Against Displaying the Work Publicly

Recording artists have a right to display their work publicly. But since print rights don’t apply to recorded sounds, musicians tend to disregard this copyright. However, when a label wants to produce a lyric video of a song or a streaming platform wants to show its users the song lyrics, it must first seek a print license from the composer’s representatives. 

  1. Protection against Digital Performance 

The digital performance rights protect musical work from being transmitted publicly by any digital audio means. In other words, it ensures digital radio services such as SiriusXM, Pandora, and webcasts pay royalty returns to artists whenever they play their work. 

The Basics of Music Copyrights

The Basics of Music Copyrights

If you are an aspiring composer or recording artist, you should commit to memorizing the following six basics of music copyrights: 

  1. Registering Copyrights

The only legitimate means of registering a song for protection from copyright infringement is through the U.S. Copyright Office’s eCO system. You should disregard any other website that claims to handle music copyright registrations.

You’ll be charged $65 to register a single song for copyright protection and $85 for compilations or albums. They are payable with a credit card or bank account. Otherwise, you can open what’s known as a ‘deposit account’ with the U.S Copyright Office – it works just like a bank. 

You must understand that most judges no longer accept the traditional ways of copyrighting songs or lyrics ( for example, mailing them to yourself). So, before taking any legal action against infringement, ensure you are armed with an official copyright registration certificate from the Library of Congress or the Copyright Office. 

  1. You Don’t ‘Own’ the Absolute Copyrights

Just because you hold the copyrights to a song or recording, it doesn’t mean that you absolutely own them. Copyrights aren’t absolute as it is with patents or trademarks. Someone elsewhere could be composing a song that eerily sounds like yours, either from a lyrical or melodic point of view. 

If you happen to appear in court to defend your ‘ownership,’ the court musicologists will compare the two works of art and give their opinions on whether the songs are similar or dissimilar. 

  1. Artist Names, Song Titles, and Logos are Not Copyrightable

You shouldn’t try to copyright your band name if you aim to use it exclusively. It is not copyrightable, but you can register for a trademark

The same applies to song titles, although trademarking them can be quite hard. This is because out of the 26 English alphabet letters, creative songwriters can arrange them in numerous unique ways. So, two songs that vary in genres and melodies may end up sharing the title name. 

An example can be pointed out from Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and Taylor Dayne’s “I’ll Always Love You”, both of which differ in genres and harmonic structure. 

The only unacceptable scenario is when one musician duplicates the melodies or lyrics of another song to the degree of sounding near identical. For example, Micahel Bolton’s song and The Isleys’ song, both of which are named “Love is a Wonderful Thing,” sound almost the same. The Isleys pursued legal action and won the case against Bolton. 

  1. Deposits 

When you hear ‘deposits’ in copyright, do not confuse them with ‘deposit accounts,’ which we had mentioned earlier. Deposits refer to the copies of the song or recordings which you are requested to upload when registering for copyright protection. 

You can register for copyright protection even if you haven’t entirely produced the recording. You are good to go if the piano or guitar vocals are decipherable.  For songs, the melodies and lyrics must be showcased. 

On the other hand, master recording copyrights are granted for the final mastered version of the song. The U.S Copyright Office will not acknowledge basic-track sketches or demos because the rights are meant to protect the recorded arrangement of the song. 

  1. Copyrights Last 70 years After the Holder’s Death

If a music copyright holder dies, their work stays protected for 70 years after they die. This period could extend to 120 years, but the holder’s music becomes public domain after that. This duration applies to the US only and may differ in other countries. 

  1. Copyright Violation Must Be Established in a Liberal Court

Anyone who violates a music owner’s rights is considered an infringer. If sued and the court proves them guilty of an infringement offense, they must compensate the owner – most commonly by paying a massive amount of money. However, it must be established that: 

  • The copyright has been infringed
  • The offender’s copy is ‘sustainably similar’ to the copyrighted work

What Are The Red Flags to Watch Before Signing With a Record Label?

What Are The Red Flags to Watch Before Signing With a Record Label?

While record companies should bridge the gap between singing and succeeding, Kanye West recently argued that they exploit musicians. Having been offered a recording deal, how can you ensure you aren’t being taken advantage of? 

  1. Keep off Unwritten Contracts

If a recording company doesn’t require a written contract, that’s it’s a huge red flag. Contracts are your only legal protection against manipulation. They protect your time, assets, and revenue. 

An unwritten contract means the person is inexperienced, not earnest, or has nothing to protect. 

  1. Be Cautious with Contracts Offering a Fee-for-Service Model

As businesses try to establish sustainable working models, some record labels have adopted the fee-for-service model. They ask you to pay to join them. If you proceed to sign a deal like this, you must be cautious as it may be risky. 

  1. Watch Their Track Record

If you know none of the artists a record label claims to have worked with, then it’s proof in the padding that nobody will hear about you, either. Track record is everything in the music industry, and if they had little success with their past clients, you can’t expect otherwise. 

  1. Do not Sign Contracts Pushed with Urgency

If they rush you to sign a deal, they are probably pushing you to make a wrong decision. You should do your homework scrutinously to ensure you don’t fall prey to exploitation. Find information online and ask your network to establish if they are reputable. 

Beware of modern forms of pressurizing. Some companies will lure you with ‘take advantage of the holidays or ‘hit the ground running deals, which are often unfair. 

The Takeaway

A  record label will own any music produced under them. This is a way for them to make money. In music creation, registering for copyright protection is a vital step. When your song is stolen for reproduction, derivation, distribution, or performing, you have proof to show in court if you own it.

It will also come in handy in the modern age where self-starter record labels use predatory practices to exploit desperate musicians. Get your cards right by registering for copyright protection! 

About Author

Arielle P

Arielle P

Songwriter | Music Producer | Engineer.

With a background in music production and a strong passion for education, Arielle is dedicated to helping emerging artists navigate the music industry. She has worked with a diverse range of artists, from indie rock bands to well-known hip-hop and grime artists. Arielle's unique approach to teaching focuses on empowering artists to take control of their brand, ensuring they retain creative ownership throughout their journey. In her free time, she enjoys experimenting with new sounds in her home studio and sharing her insights through music production tutorials and workshops.

📧 Email Arielle