A guide to copyright in sound recordings

Copyright law exists to give creators of literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works control over how their creations are used. In many cases, copyright also gives the right to creators of such works to be identified as the author and to object to distortions of their work.

Copyright applies to a work if it is regarded as original, and exhibits a degree of labour, skill or judgement, and comes into affect at the point of creation of such a work.

Ideas for a work are not covered by copyright law. For example, your idea for a book would not be protected but the content of a book you have written would be. Others would be free to write a book based upon the same idea so long as they did not directly copy or adapt your work in the process.

In most cases, the rights would be owned exclusively by the author or co-authors of the work. However, if the work was produced as part of employment then the rights will usually be owned by the employer. With freelance and commissioned work, the rights would usually remain with the author unless an agreement to the contrary exists

Current copyright law in the UK is covered by The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. While specific details of copyright law vary from nation to nation, The Berne Convention provides a common framework with regard to intellectual property rights between nations.

This article deals specifically with UK copyright law.

Duration of Rights
For literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works, copyright remains in effect for 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last remaining author of the work dies. Types of work covered are:

1. Literary – Song lyrics, manuscripts, manuals, computer programs, commercial documents, leaflets, newsletters and articles etc.
2. Dramatic – Plays, dance, etc.
3. Musical – Recordings and score.
4. Artistic – Photography, painting, architecture, technical drawings/diagrams, maps, logos, etc.

For films, duration of rights is 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last principal director, author or composer dies. For Typographical arrangement of published editions, the duration is 25 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work was first published.

For sound recordings, the duration or term is 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work was first published.

Copyright in Sound Recordings
Sound recordings have an individual copyright that is separate from the copyright of the composition. Even if the composition is in the public domain, a specific sound recording of it may not be.

Therefore, the two types of copyright that apply when talking about music copyright are:

1. The copyright that applies to the composition, musical score and lyrics of a musical work. This is signified by the traditional ‘C in a circle’ © symbol and remains in effect for 70 years after the death of the last remaining author.
2. The copyright that applies to the sound recording itself which is signified by the ‘P in a circle’ symbol and remains in effect for 50 years from the death of the last remianing author or from when the work was made available to the public, by authorised release, performance, broadcast, etc.

So, to provide an example, let’s say that you wish to incorporate a section of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture into your own musical composition. It would be legal for you to record your own version of the 1812 Overture because Tchaikovsky has been dead for much longer than 70 years, ergo his compositions are now in the public domain. However, it would not be legal for you to sample somebody else’s recording of the 1812 Overture that had been released in the last 50 years. You would not be in breach of Tchaikovsky’s copyright as the author of the composition but you would be in breach of copyright of the owner of the recording you sampled.

It is the duration of copyright on sound recordings that the music industry is lobbying to change from 50 years to 95 years (or longer), and it is this issue that is the focus of the Release The Music campaign.