Copyright is free and automatic. Copyright is there from the moment a song or composition is written down or recorded in some way.
The Australian Copyright Act (1968) gives music copyright owners a number of exclusive rights. Nobody else can use the work without getting the owner’s permission first, and if necessary, paying a royalty for this use.
Want to learn more about copyright? We've put together a simple visual explanation of the Story of a Song—from inspiration through to royalty payments and all the work that goes on inbetween. Or keep reading for a more detailed explanation of copyright.
Copyright is a legal right that generally belongs to the original creator of a work.
Copyright protects literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works. It also protects sound recordings, films, published editions, performances and broadcasts. A song may have more than one copyright. The lyrics will be protected as a literary work and the music as a musical work. A recording of the song will also be separately protected as a sound recording.
Generally the composer or author of music or lyrics is the first owner of copyright in the work.
However, if you create music or lyrics as part of your employment, your employer is usually the first owner of copyright.
Similarly, if you create a work under the direction or control of a government body, the government would own copyright in the absence of an agreement to the contrary.
- Commissioned works: If you are commissioned to write music or lyrics, the person who commissioned you does not automatically owns the rights in the work, unless there is an agreement to this effect or unless they are “the Crown”. They will, however, have a right to use the work for the purpose for which it was commissioned. In these circumstances it is advisable to clarify the rights of both parties in a written agreement.
- Works created in collaboration: If you collaborate with others in writing music or lyrics, it is also advisable to have a written agreement clarifying who owns the rights in the resulting work. You may be regarded as joint authors under the law. Failure to clarify ownership at the time may result in lengthy and difficult disputes further down the track.
- Sound recordings: The person who pays for the sound recording to be made will usually be the first owner of copyright in the recording. The performers on the recording may also be joint owners of copyright in recordings made after 1 January 2005. Advice on ownership questions and assistance with drafting these agreements can be obtained from the Australian Copyright Council or the Arts Law Centre of Australia.
Copyright owners in music and lyrics have a number of exclusive rights.
Anyone who wants to use a protected work in any of the ways outlined below will usually need the copyright owner’s permission. He or she may also have to pay a royalty.
Copyright owners have the right to:
- Reproduce the work: This includes recording the music or lyrics onto a CD, a film soundtrack, or onto a computer disk. It also includes reproducing the music or lyrics as sheet music.
- Publish the work: This means making your work available to the public for the first time.
- Perform the work in public: This includes playing the work live at a venue, playing a recording of the work in a venue, business or work place, and showing a film containing the work.
- Communicate the work to the public: This includes communicating the work over the Internet, via a music on hold system or by television or radio broadcasting.
- Make an adaptation of the work: This includes arranging or transcribing music, or translating lyrics.
- Rent a recording of the music: This is the right to control the rental of recordings (on CD for example) of the work.
In the music industry, these rights are usually grouped in the following way:
- The mechanical right: This is the right to record a work on record, cassette or CD. This is usually administered by either AMCOS or by music publishers.
- The synchronisation right: This is the right to use music on the soundtrack of a film or video and is usually administered in the same way as the mechanical right.
- The performing right: This is the right to perform a work in public or to communicate a work to the public. It is administered by APRA.
There is a separate copyright in the sound recording of a musical work (with or without lyrics). The person or company that owns the rights in the recording owns the right to copy it, record it, perform it, communicate it to the public or rent it out.
Copyright lasts for the life of the author + 70 years
Generally copyright in music and lyrics lasts for the life of the author or creator, plus 70 years after the end of the calendar year in which the author dies.
If the work was not published, broadcast, performed or records of the work had not been offered or exposed for sale to the public until after the creator’s death, copyright will last for 70 years from the end of the calendar year of first publication, broadcast, performance or when records of the work were offered or exposed for sale to the public.
- Print music translations, arrangements and published editions: Where music is arranged or lyrics are translated, there is likely to be a separate copyright in the arrangement or translation. Copyright in these will last for 70 years after the end of the calendar year in which the translator or arranger dies.
- Published editions: Another copyright exists in what is known as the published edition. Published edition copyright protects a publisher’s investment in the typesetting and typographical arrangement of the music and lyrics. Copyright in published editions lasts for 25 years after the date of publication. This copyright may still subsist even when the copyright in the music and lyrics have expired.
When copyright in a work expires, it is in the public domain and anyone can use it without having to obtain permission or pay a fee.