By Mita Carriman Esq. (@nymusiclawyer), NYC entertainment lawyer at Carriman Law Group and band manager.
As an entertainment attorney who was once an indie artist myself involved in a few different artistic disciplines, I know that the bridge between law and art doesn’t always seem straightforward. There’s certainly a lot of gray area, which could lead a person to probably think that the law would be one way, when it isn’t. Through my work, I’ve frequently encountered several myths regarding music law that I hope can eventually go away! While there are much more than 4, I found that these were especially common:
1. “A poor man’s” copyright is a “poor” way to properly protect the rights to your music.
Emailing or snail-mailing yourself a copy of your music (or other creative work) is what many people refer to as a so-called “poor-man’s” copyright. Let’s get this clear once and for all: the “poor man’s copyright” has never been a part of the US copyright law, nor is it recognized by law. It’s simply not a substitute for copyright registration in any way. Your copyrights actually arise when your original creative works are placed in a fixed format, such as when you record original music, or when you write down original lyrics on paper. By taking the step of timely registering your copyrights with the government (within 3 months of publication), you gain a host of great benefits. Perhaps the best benefit of timely registration is the ability to bring a copyright infringement lawsuit for $750 – $150,000.00 + attorney fees per act of infringement via statutory damages. By putting your trust in the “poor-man’s” copyright for your music, it might literally leave you “poor.”
2. There is no “50 second,” “5 second,” “8 bar,” or “1 bar” rule to being able to legally sample music you don’t own or control the rights to.
Another common myth echoed across the indie music scene is that there is a “50 second,” “5 second,” “8 bar,” or “1 bar” rule that permits you to legally sample music you don’t own or control into your own music creations. This is a very dangerous myth that needs to go away. When you sample any portion of someone’s music without proper authorization, it gives rise to a valid cause of action for copyright violation. The owner has every right to sue you, and if they did the right thing by timely registering their copyrights, then you could get hit with a pretty severe lawsuit money-wise. If you want to obtain the rights to sample music properly, you have to clear the rights to the music composition copyright, and if you want to use the sound recording, then the sound recording copyright has to get cleared as well.
As for the concept of “fair use,” it’s a defense that is used as a shield, not a sword to copyright infringement, and it’s a pretty difficult defense to prove in court. Sampling under fair use must be for the purpose of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. Further, the court will also weigh the following four factors to evaluate whether there was an actual fair use: (1) Purpose & character of the use – was it for profit or non profit and educational? (2) Whether the work been published already?(3) The amount and substantiality used; and (4) The harm done to the original copyright owner.
Long story short – don’t sample without securing the rights. More often than not, music sampling by musicians is not protected by fair use, and even if it is, you still have to pay to defend your argument in court. Your best bet: create your own original music.
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