Oregon Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts

In Defense of Art

In Defense of Art is the official blog of Oregon Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts

Copyrights for Music, Part I

Today’s post will cover some important fundamentals of music copyrights. Unlike most creative works, which are generally protected by a single, over-arching copyright, recorded music is covered by two copyrights: one for the composition, and one for the sound recording. Understanding how the two copyrights differ, and how they interplay with each other, is important to understand the music industry and the protections that music copyright owners enjoy.


Both copyrights for music go by different names, depending on whom you’re talking to. The official name for the music itself (and accompanying lyrics, etc.) is the “musical composition.” This is the written song as it might be represented on sheet music; it may also be called “the musical work” or simply “the work.” It is possible to listen to a composition without listening to a sound recording. One example is a player piano. A hundred years ago, before sound recordings were commonplace, people sold long  “player rolls” that contained the musical composition that could be read by a player piano. The player piano had a device inside that could read the roll and mechanically hammer the strings (or even push down the keys) exactly as a performer would have done if he or she were sitting at the piano. There’s no “fixed” recording of the sound coming out of the piano, but the song itself is protected as a copyrighted musical composition.

Today, of course, player pianos are no longer necessary to play a song. However, compositions can still be shared, distributed, and copied—every guitarist around the world who plays “Wonderwall” is picking (roughly) the same strings in the same order, at the same speed, and singing the same lyrics in the same melody as Oasis’s Noel Gallagher originally composed. In cases where the music and lyrics of a composition are written by different people, they generally share the copyright as joint authors.

Sound Recording

A “sound recording” is generally a fixed performance of a song. It can also be called a “side” or a “master.” Using the previous example, every performer to record the song “Wonderwall” has his or her own copyright on the sound recording, but none of them can claim ownership of the underlying composition, even if their version is a little bit distinct or even better. Take another example: the song (the composition) “I Will Always Love You,” written by Dolly Parton, was successful in the country music market when she originally released it in 1974, but Whitney Houston’s recorded version of the song released in 1992 was a huge hit, and in fact is one of the most successful sound recordings of all time. Thanks to its success, Whitney Houston and her producer profited immensely as the owners of the sound recording copyright, and Dolly Parton, as the composer, continues to receive a royalty for every record sold.

It can be difficult to conceptually separate a sound recording from a composition; after all, the recorded performer is performing something. A live recording of a jazz or piano jam may come close to isolating a sound recording from a composition, although it can be argued that as soon as the recording is fixed in a phonorecord, the performers can also claim a right as the joint authors of the improvised composition