Music Copyright Law: “Musical Works” and Sound Recordings

Copyright Law: Distinguishing Between Musical Works and Sound Recordings

In general terms, copyright protection extends to “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” Pursuant to Section 102 of the federal Copyright Act (“the Act”), works of authorship include, among other categories:

  1. Musical works, including any accompanying words; and
  2. Sound recordings.

As these two categories often overlap, understanding the difference between “musical works” and “sound recordings” can be crucial to understanding the scope of copyright protection afforded to each.

Copyright Protection for Musical Works
First, federal copyright law provides for copyright protection in “musical works, including any accompanying words.” The U.S. Copyright Office has interpreted “musical works” to include “both original compositions and original arrangements or other new versions of earlier compositions to which new copyrightable authorship has been added.”
Although copyright protection is usually automatic from the moment a work is created, registering a work with the Copyright Office is a better method of providing others with notice, and can provide more remedies for the copyright owner in case of infringement. The copyright owners of musical works can register their work with the Copyright Office by completing the Performing Arts application form (Form PA), which must be accompanied by a “deposit” of the work to be registered. Depending on the type of work to be registered, the deposit requirement varies from either one or two copies of the “best edition” of the work.

“Best Edition” Requirement
The Act requires that deposits be of the “best edition” of the work. The “best edition” is usually the edition that the Library of Congress determines to be “most suitable for its purposes.”When two or more editions of the same work have been published, the “best edition” is typically the one of the highest quality. For example, the Library of Congress considers compact digital disks to be the “best edition” of a phonorecord, as compared to a vinyl disk or a tape. If the work has only been published online, there are specific rules about the best edition of the work.

Copyright Protection for Sound Recordings
The Act also provides copyright protection for “sound recordings,” which are defined as “works that result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds.” Sound recordings are typically “fixed” in “phonorecords,” which are the material objects in which sounds are fixed, such as tapes and disks (among other formats). The author of a sound recording is the performer, or the record producer, or both.
The author of a sound recording can register the work with the Copyright Office by completing the Sound Recordings application form (Form SR). When the same person owns the copyrights in both a musical work and a sound recording fixed in a phonorecord, Form SR may be used to register both. There is also a deposit requirement to register a copyright claim in a sound recording, which varies from either one or two copies of the best edition, depending on several factors.

Questions about copyright protection? Call a Copyright Attorney at 913.345.0900.

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