IN THIS SECTION
What is Copyright?
When a creative work is recorded or documented it becomes subject to the laws of copyright, and the creators are then in a position to charge for its use. Owning the 'intellectual property' for a piece of music can be compared to owning the patent on an invention. It is protected by law and nobody is allowed to reproduce it without permission. Not all countries have copyright legislation or choose to enforce it, but the majority of Western countries do.
In addition to the copyrights in the song/composition there are also copyrights in each recording of a song. Traditionally, these have belonged to the record company which paid for the recording costs, though artists can also own their own 'masters' and license them to a label.
How long does copyright last?
Copyright of a composition or score lasts for 70 years after the death of the writer and includes lyrics. Heirs receive the royalties until this time has expired. By contrast, in the UK, the copyright of a sound recording lasts for 50 years after it was recorded. The British music industry is currently lobbying to have this term extended, as early rock 'n' roll sound recordings approach the end of their copyright lifetime. When a recording enters the public domain, anybody is free to release or use the recording without having to seek permission from the copyright owner, but 'mechanical royalties' may still have to be paid to the publishing copyright owners.
Registering Active Copyrights
If songs or compositions are the work of more than one person, it is crucial that the royalty split is agreed before the songs are registered. The Musicians' Union (MU) and the British Academy of Composers & Songwriters (BACS) can provide advice on how to register a band or songwriting team as a partnership, and further information on clarifying the legal position of contributions made by session musicians or other guests.
One model sees the key songwriter(s) share the publishing income with the other band members until they leave or the group splits up, at which point the copyright reverts to the key songwriter(s). However, there are numerous other possibilities.
In order for collection societies to collect royalties in their specific areas, musical works must be registered with each society. In the UK self-published writers will need to join the 'Performing Right Society (PRS)' and the 'Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS)'. This requires a one-off joining fee of £100 and £50 respectively, although the organisations operate together as the MCPS-PRS Alliance (also known as the Music Alliance).
Writers who play on recordings of their own compositions, will also be required to join 'Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL)'. This organisation collects royalties on behalf of performers playing on sound recordings which are aired in public places.
The collection societies provide details on how to register compositions on their respective websites and send out statements every three or six months. These provide details of where the music was used and how much was paid.