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16 Common Music Copyright Myths & Misconceptions Explained

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Where music copyright myths are concerned, there is no shortage of misinformation out there.

The issue is that you rarely have situations that are 100% identical. 

Meaning that blanket statements usually don’t work as a different set of factors will come into play, depending on the scenario.

Music Copyright Myths Explained

Music Copyright Myths Explained

Where music copyright is concerned, there is no shortage of misinformation out there.

The issue is that you rarely have situations that are 100% identical. Meaning that blanket statements usually don’t work as a different set of factors will come into play, depending on the scenario.

Myth: “If I mail a copy of my music to myself and don’t open it, this counts as proof of copyright.”

Known as the “poor man’s copyright,” because back in the day, struggling musicians realized that they could bolster copyright protection without formally registering works by mailing themselves a copy of a song.

Someone would record a song or album, place the recorded material in a postal service box or envelope, and then mail the package to themselves.

The reason for this is that the post office would stamp the date on the package when being processed.

The thinking was that the package would be left unopened, and if copyright needed to be proven in court, the package could be entered as evidence and opened in court before a judge.

With the date stamp on the package, the recording would demonstrate that the person in possession was the copyright holder.

Now, there are plenty of problems with this method. For one, there are ways to open and re-seal envelopes. Second, it doesn’t make for a strong case, given all the ways an envelope could be manipulated.

The irony of calling it the poor man’s copyright is that the cost of copyrighting your music is quite insignificant.

Furthermore, the Poor Man’s copyright is essentially obsolete now. You can’t file a lawsuit or appear in front of a judge unless you have registered and completed the 3-10 month process with the Copyright Office.

>>> Related Reading: The CASE Act & Supreme Court Ruling of 2019

Fact: "Your content is considered copyrighted once it is created or published."

As mentioned earlier, you do not have to register your works to obtain a copyright. Technically as soon as you create that piece of work, you have ownership of the rights. Keyword, here being “technically.”

The caveat here is that, similar to the issues of the poor man’s copyright, this can potentially weaken your case if you don’t have adequate proof that you created the work.

However, the fact remains that, yes, you do assume copyright protection upon the creation of your work. With that said, we don’t suggest that you rely merely on this fact alone when it comes to protection.

Creators relying on ‘poor man’s copyright’ or the basic rights granted at the time of creation are not entitled to the same protection as creators that have registered, such as the right to file a lawsuit.

Myth/Fact: "Ok, since I have copyright ownership as soon as I create something, I don’t have to register with the Copyright Office at this moment and can file a lawsuit later if I need to."

Depending on where you live and where you plan to file that lawsuit, it will determine if this statement is true or not.

In the U.S., where 70% of infringements occur, it is now mandatory to register your copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office, before you can file a lawsuit.

Only copyright holders whose applications have received a decision may file a lawsuit. Pending applications are not eligible. (Cosynd) Keep in mind that the process can take 3-10 months normally, so you want to be proactive and get this done.

Meaning that if you are filing a lawsuit and rushing to registering your copyright at the same time, you may be out of luck. Furthermore, if you do a rush filing, not only will the cost be upwards of $800, you will need to provide a reason as to why you are requesting the rush – such as pending legal reasons. That alone may result in a decision other than approval.

While this isn’t the case everywhere around the globe, why risk it and create more problems for yourself?

>>> Related Reading: How to Officially Register Your Copyrights

Myth: "As long as I don’t stand to make any money from it, It’s ok to use, copy, or publish someone else’s work."

While it may be hard to track down every single person who may be infringing on your copyright, the fact remains that they do require consent to use your work except for fair use circumstances.

The other misconception here is that if you make a mixtape including work that may be sampled or instrumentals that are not yours and give it out for free that this is ok. The fact is that you don’t have the right to distribute or create derivative works if you do not own the copyright or have permission from the owners to do so.

The caveat here is that it more than likely won’t be worth the time and money to chase down everyone unless there is some serious money on the line or if the issue can be easily resolved.

Myth/Fact: "It’s hard to prove copyright infringement."

For the most part, I would disagree because, in a lot of cases, it can be pretty apparent when infringement has occurred. In addition to this, is the fact that copyright law does not mirror criminal cases in which defendants are innocent until proven guilty.

Copyright law is considered civil law, which will require a lower burden of proof to establish that infringement has occurred. However, as was experienced in our blurred lines example, this case spanned well over a year and was not exactly considered easy to prove that infringement had occurred.

The reason being is that it wasn’t a matter of Marvin Gaye’s work being directly copied. The similarities in the songs are not glaring, but one could say that inspiration was drawn from the work.

>>> Related Reading: Blurred Lines Lawsuit Case Study

However, it could be said that all works in some way are drawing inspiration from somewhere, so does that bare ground for infringement?

That’s not for me to decide, but it isn’t always a black and white issue when it comes to copyright cases.

Myth: "If I change someone else’s work, I can claim it as my own."

Essentially this is considered a derived work, and again without consent, you are infringing on the copyright.

If you are starting from a blank slate and drawing inspiration from the work, then this may be different, but just know that you are walking a very fine line.

Myth: "When I pull something from the Internet, it is considered ‘public domain,’ and there is no issue with me using it."

This is not the case and usually gets people into trouble, especially when it comes to websites using pictures they’ve pulled from Google, for example. Just because you found something on the internet, it does not permit you to use it as you please.

The difference here is the distinction between what is in the public domain and what is publicly accessible. Public domain means that the term of someone’s copyright, after death, has ended and the copyright now exists within the public domain.

As for something you may have found on the internet, this just means that it is publicly accessible and does not necessarily grant you the permission of its use. As always, seek out the owner and ask for permission.

Myth: "It doesn't hurt anybody; in fact, it's free advertising."

This is a collective mindset among artists, but the fact remains that this is not for you to decide. Even if you are not “hurting anyone,” per se, you should still be asking for permission. Yes, there is no doubt that you can get away with things, but it is not the best practice.

Myth: "Sampling only a few seconds of a song as well as doing cover songs are all fine and legal."

A common misconception is that sampling and cover songs are all legal. Again the only way this is ok is if you obtain the proper license, which is getting a lot easier with the likes of the Harry Fox Agency or Easy Song Licensing.

Where sampling is concerned, no time constraint makes it ok or legal for you to use. If you sample something, you need permission for the use of that music.

Cover songs are another area that creates a ton of confusion for artists because it seems like everyone does this, even famous artists. However, what most people don’t know is that when you perform, release or make a music video of a cover song, you need to have the proper license and permissions to do so, or else you may face the consequences.

Simply stating who created the original work and giving them credit is not enough. A license grants you permission, which isn’t too difficult to obtain when it comes to cover songs. However, samples can come with their challenges.

Myth: "I bought the beat, so I own the copyright."

I don’t want to offend anyone among the producer community, but the reality is that over the years, this battlefield has gotten a bit messy.

I’ve seen offers along the lines of “10 beats for $1” or “Send me your email, and I’ll send you 20 free beats”. Making for a copyright nightmare, and even if you bought something, unfortunately, this doesn’t mean you own it in this case.

Think about the process of buying a house. Even if you have the luxury to pay cash, you don’t just hand over the money in exchange for the keys.

No, there is paperwork involved, lawyers, and everything else under the sun before the deal is considered done.

Now, buying a beat isn’t the same as buying a house, but at the same time, it shouldn’t be treated as a simple cash or PayPal transaction.

No different than collaborating with someone, when obtaining a beat, you need to set forth ground rules through an agreement, so everyone knows where they stand.

The unfortunate thing is that even if you go through the proper channels, this does not stop a producer from breaking the agreement and still flipping the song to another 50 artists.

However, if you at least have some paperwork in place, this gives you some leverage if things get messy.

If you have nothing in writing, you may find it challenging to present a strong case. If someone is unwilling to discuss terms and sign an agreement with you, this should be an instant red flag in most cases. 

Myth: "Pleading ignorance or a lack of intent is a valid argument that will hold up in court."

The whole ignorance is bliss rationale will not save you in the world of copyright law. In this case, things are very black and white in the sense that infringement has either occurred or not.

Some think that if they state “no infringement intended,” along with the credit that this saves them from any consequences, but this is not the case.

Even if you honestly did not know that infringement has occurred, this still does not save you from the fact that the infringement happened.

Not to harp on the producer community again, but an example could be once again buying a beat from someone who tells you that the beat was made from scratch and entirely their creation.

However, that producer may have used a sample that wasn’t cleared. Even though you were unaware of this fact, it does not absolve you of the fact that an infringement has occurred.

Myth/Fact: "If I share content found on social media and without giving credit, this not a copyright issue."

Social media and online marketing have created even more turbulence when it comes to the issues of copyright. Not to mention how you can also distribute your music to some of these popular platforms now.

What most people believe is that when you repost something you found on social media without giving credit, there are no copyright issues involved with the act. However, this is false, and you should be at the very least crediting the source.

While social media is flooded with people trying to gain notoriety, the free publicity may be encouraged; however, you may notice it with popular meme pages who get into feuds over not being given the proper credit for posting something first.

Some other popular page steals the post and claims it as their own, and some verbal jousting ensues in the comments. Technically a form of infringement has occurred. Will this get taken to court? Probably not, but after all, it is 2020, and I’m sure crazier things have happened.

The other thing to consider here is that fair use implications may apply that wouldn’t consider the act infringement.

Myth: "Crediting the content creator protects you from liability."

A common misconception is that giving credit protects you against any copyright issues. However, if you do not have permission, you are infringing with or without credit being given.

Think about it from the side of you profiting from the situation or growing your brand through someone else’s efforts, yet all they receive in return is a one-liner or a link. If the tables were turned, you might not be so happy yourself.

Myth: "Everything and anything can be copyrighted."

This mindset is incorrect, as copyright law does have limitations to what can be registered and protected.

“Several categories of material are generally not eligible for federal copyright protection. These include, among others, ideas, methods, concepts, principles, titles, names, slogans, familiar symbols or designs, listings of ingredients or contents, coloring, and variations of typographic ornamentation.” https://www.inc.com/encyclopedia/copyright.html

The U.S. Copyright Office, considers copyrightable works to include the following categories:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

According to Cosynd, “copyright protects original works of authorship. These works must be fixed in a tangible form of expression, such as a record, a video, a document, etc. Works that can be communicated with a device such as a computer, television, or tablet are also eligible for copyright protection.”

Myth: "You have to be a certain age to copyright your music."

With the number of young prodigies out there making music or crushing it in some other industry, it doesn’t make sense that they wouldn’t be protected regardless of age.

There are no specific age requirements to hold ownership of a copyright. Still, depending on where you reside, there may be differences in copyright law that will affect minors differently than they would adults.

Myth: "Simply paying someone creates a Work For Hire arrangement."

Not exactly, and as mentioned in the section on agreements, there is usually a lot more to cover than directly paying someone for the work they are doing.

In the majority of cases, an actual Work For Hire contract is required and is best practice. This dramatically reduces the chances of disputes arising and people thinking they are entitled to things that they may not be.

Wrapping It Up

As you can see, there is a lot of misinformation out there where copyright is concerned. We hope that this has helped to clear up any confusion you may have had and opened your eyes to some of the implications of your actions.

If you are still confused about music copyright, you can get up to speed Here or learn more about the benefits of officially registering your copyright Here.

We would love to hear your thoughts on some of these myths or any questions you may have in the comments below. 

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Music With Flavor Staff

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