Composer Rights

When we talk about ‘composer rights’ it is just another way of referring to the legal rights of a songwriter.

There are a number of songwriter forums that you can access, but the focus for present purposes is on the rights that you have as the composer of what is referred to in copyright terms as a ‘musical work’.

In Owning Copyright we look at how to get a copyright – or better expressed, how copyright arises. Just because someone sticks a copyright logo – you know, the international copyright symbol (c) – on a piece of paper does not mean that its content has copyright, nor that he is the owner. However, let’s not worry about that here.

It is widely known that big stars like Neil Diamond, Bryan Adams, Michael Bolton, and a whole lot more started out life as songwriters. They were not recording artistes, and only came to that later. The point is that they – and countless other composers – have all made a living, some a whole lot better than others, out of songwriting. In this article we are going to evaluate the basic composer rights that flow from having composed a song. Just so you know when you step into the great big songwriters market out there….

First, an introductory point: whether you might be the hottest of the new-wave of Chinese composers, or merely near the bottom of the pack of American jazz composers, all these principles will apply.

  1. We are not concerned with the quality of the song and whether or not someone will want to use it for their next release. We touch on that elsewhere, and of course you are free to ask the Experts for advice and guidance. Copyright will apply to your musical work irrespective of whether it is good, bad, or indifferent. As we have seen in Owning Copyright, once you have ‘captured’ your composition in a material form, you own the copyright in that musical work – in short, once you have composed it, you own copyright!
  2. Second point. Obviously, a ‘song’ implies a combination of music and words, or lyrics. Technically, an instrumental is not a ‘song’, because it is not ‘sung’. However, for present purposes it doesn’t matter. One of the few occasions where there is an importance in the difference is where there are different ‘authors’ – one, the music composer, and one the lyricist. Then, the rights are different, because the lyrics are considered (by the copyright statutes) as a ‘literary work’ whereas the music is a ‘musical work’. Right now, that is a distinction without a difference, because the law treats the composer rights for all these works in the same way.
  3. Actually, copyright is a basket of rights, sometimes referred to as a bouquet of rights. In copyright terms, a song is a ‘musical work’, and, briefly, one talks of ‘reproduction’ as being the forbidden act, but there is an array of types of conduct that can be infringing. These rights are different in nature but in essence they all have a central theme – and that is the ‘reproduction’, in some way or another, of the song. Check on the links below to pick up further detail, to see just what these ‘rights’ are.
  4. On first principles,¬†as composer you will be the beneficiary of all the composer rights. This is where there is cash to be made. Firstly, someone may want to buy the song on an exclusive basis. More likely is the case where they just want to record the song, which is the way most songwriters make a living. So this would be a once-off licence, not exclusive to other performers, although it might be that a period of exclusivity is worked into the deal. It’s a negotiated agreement, so anything goes….
  5. However, if you have already recorded the song, there is, generally speaking, what is known as a statutory licence. People can do cover versions, provided they pay the licence fees – and this is where you can recover royalties as well. Follow more detail on this aspect in the section on Music Publishing.
  6. Have a look at the following for more info:
    Original Composition
    Assignment of Copyright
    Employees’ Copyright
    What is a ‘Right”?
    What are the Copyrights?
    Case Study – Jumpin’ Jack Flash

or go back to Owning Copyright