Music law

Music law

Music law is used to describe the legal aspects of the music industry and certain legal aspects in other sectors of the entertainment industry. The music industry includes record labels, music publishers, merchandisers, the live events sector and of course performers and artists. The entertainment sector includes film, television, dance, theatre and video games.

The terms "music law" and "entertainment law", along with "business affairs", are used by the music and entertainment industry and should not be thought of as academic definitions. Indeed, music law covers a range of traditional legal subjects including intellectual property law (copyright law, trademarks, image publicity rights, design rights), competition law, bankruptcy law, contract law, defamation and, for the live events industry, immigration law, health and safety law, and licensing.



Within the music and entertainment industries, there are lawyers who specialize in one or more areas of music and entertainment law. Most practicing lawyers have knowledge of appropriate contract law and intellectual property law within the jurisdiction they practice in, and, where appropriate, at least a working knowledge of US and UK contract law and US and European intellectual property law, as the recording industry in particular is US-centric.

A good source of information for US readers is the United States Copyright Office which is also the register of copyrights in the USA. There are other links below for both the USA and other jurisdictions.

Music law is increasingly a global topic. With a worldwide market, the digital revolution and the internet, intellectual property law is often playing 'catch up' as technology changes at a rapid pace.


Once music is recorded and/or the melody and lyrics are documented ('fixed' in a tangible form), under UK law the author owns the copyright - copyright 'subsists'. The same is true in the USA - as soon as the material is fixed in “a tangible medium of expression” it is copyrighted. However the US operates a registration based system of copyright and in order to protect your copyright completely, you must send your “tangible medium of expression” to the Copyright Office to be registered.


Publishing is the primary source of income for musicians writing their own music. Money collected form the 'publishing' rights is ultimately destined for songwriters - the composers of works, whether or not they are the recording artiste or performer. Often, songwriters will work for bands to help them with lyrics and music to play, but here again, the writer of the song is the owner of it and will own the copyrights in the song and thus will be entitled to the publishing revenues. Copyrights in compositions are NOT the same as sound recordings. A recording artiste can record a song and sell it to another band or company. As a result, that particular company will own the recording, but not the song. The original writer will always maintain the copyright for that particular song. The publishing money is connected to the copyright, so the owner will be the only one making money off of the song itself. All successful songwriters will join a collection society (such as ASCAP and BMI in the USA, JASRAC in Japan GEMA in Germany and PRS for Music in the UK) and many will enter into agreements with music publishing companies who will exploit their works on the songwriters behalf for a share of ownership, although many of these deals involve the transfer (assignment) of copyright from the songwriter to the music publisher.

Both the recorded music sector and music publishing sector have their foundations in intellectual property law and all of the major recording labels and major music publishers and many independent record labels and publishers have dedicated "business and legal affairs" departments with in-house lawyers whose role is not only to secure intellectual property rights from recording artists, performers and songwriters but also to exploit those rights and protect those rights on a global basis. There are a number of specialist independent law firms around the world who advise on music and entertainment law whose clients include recording artists, performers, producers, songwriters, labels, music publishers, stage and set designers, choreographers, graphic artists, games designers, merchandisers, broadcasters, artist managers, distributors, collection societies and the live events sector (which further includes festivals, venues, promoters, booking agents and production service providers such as lighting and staging companies).



The US Government views artists that give concerts and sell merchandise as a business. Bands that tour internationally will also face a plethora of legislation around the world including health and safety laws, immigration laws and tax legislation. Also, many relationships are governed by often complex contractual agreements.

In the US it is important for musicians to get legal business licenses. These can be obtained at a city hall or local government center. The business license will require the tracking of sales, wages, and gigs. A tax ID is also necessary for all businesses. Musicians that fail to comply with the tax ID process and do not report their profits and losses to the government can face serious consequences with the IRS.

"Music: Copyright Law." Educational CyberPlayGround, Inc. 1997 [1]

Rees, Stuart M. "Music Law." Starving Artists Law, Esq. 2001-2003 [2]

Kakuk, Michael S. "Music Law 101." Attorney 1996-2000 [3]

Standler, Ronald B. "Music Copyright Law in the USA." 2008-2009 [4]

"Public Domain Music." Haven Sound, Inc. 2006 [5]

"Copyright Law of the United States and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code." U.S. Copyright Office, Washington D.C. 2009 [6]

"Copyright Resource Center." Music Publishers Association of the United States Arts and Advocacy, New York, NY 2004-2011 [7]

Lindenbaum, John "Music Sampling and Copyright Law." Princeton University Center for the Arts and Cultural Studies, April 1999 [8]

Further reading

  • Hill, Iain; Kemp, Chris (Eds). Health & Safety Aspects in the Live Music Industry, Cambridge: Entertainment Technology Press. ISBN 1-904031-22-6
  • Cornish, William; Llewelyn, David. Intellectual Property: Patents, Copyrights, Trade Marks and Allied Rights, London: Sweet & Maxwell, 5th Edition. ISBN 0-421-63540-1
  • Schulenberg, Richard. Legal Aspects of the Music Industry, New York: Billboard Books (Watson-Guptill publications). ISBN 0-8230-8364-0
  • Kanaar, Nicholas; Phillips, Chris. Music Business Agreements London: Sweet & Maxwell, 3rd Edition. ISBN 978-1-84703-905-7
  • Rosen, Ronald S. Music and Copyright, Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-533836-7
  • Harrison, Ann. Music The Business London: Virgin Books, 3rd Edition. ISBN 1-85227-013-6
  • Chatburn, Katie; Little, Jonathan (Eds). Musicians and Songwriters Yearbook 2007. ISBN 0-7136-7531-4
  • Frith, Simon; Lee Marshall (Eds). Music and Copyright, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2nd Edition. ISBN 978-0748618132

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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