What Do You Mean Songs Have 2 Copyrights?

Whenever I present on copyright laws, there is at least one person whose mind is blown by the fact that musical compositions and sound recordings are in fact, TWO separate works, both of which may be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Musical Compositions relate to the music itself and any accompanying lyrics (melody, rhythm and/or harmony), and typically the composer(s), lyricist(s) and/or songwriter(s) is/are the author(s). Claimants in these works have the exclusive rights to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute copies, and to perform and display the work publicly.

Sound Recordings are the actual fixation of a series of sounds and are typically owned by performers, producers and/or sound engineers. Claimants in these works have similar rights, except the exclusive right to perform the work publicly is limited to digital audio transmissions and there is no exclusive right to display the work publicly.

Keep in mind that a copyright in the sound recording is not the same as or a substitute for the copyright in the musical composition! Luckily, there are some instances when a musical composition and a sound recording can be registered with 1 application for 1 fee (e.g., a songwriter writes and records her own composition or when a record label owns both the composition and the recording of that composition, etc.)

When considering registering your works with the Copyright Office, there are a number of factors to consider in determining the appropriate application and most cost-conscience approach. The Copyright Office provides a number of user-friendly resources to help guide the application process.

By: Michelle M. Wahl, Esq.


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Michelle is a Partner at Swanson, Martin & Bell, LLP and is licensed in Illinois and Indiana state and federal courts. With a Masters of Law in Intellectual Property, Michelle is the Vice Chair of the firm’s Entertainment and Media Practice Group and a member of the firm’s Intellectual Property Litigation and Transactional Services Practice Group. Her copyright and trademark practice focuses on intellectual property prosecution and related transactions, including performing trademark availability searches and providing advisory opinions, as well as preparing and filing trademark applications with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and copyright registrations with the United States Copyright Office. Michelle also assists with the oversight of the firm’s extensive trademark docket and conducts required monitoring and maintenance of clients’ trademark portfolios, as well as provides clients with corporate counseling and innovative corporate solutions to address their respective needs.

Michelle further provides comprehensive representation in the drafting, negotiating and executing of various entertainment-related contracts and licenses, including but not limited to band member agreements, artist management agreements, session player agreements, performance agreements, sound engineer agreements, recording and personal services agreements, publishing agreements and licensing agreements. As a former artist manager, she has implemented many facets of national and regional tours, assembled benefit and charity concerts, communicated with various industry personnel, facilitated radio and internet publicity campaigns, arranged radio, print and internet interviews, and assisted in the development of press kits and websites promoting local talent. Michelle has also guest lectured on entertainment and intellectual property-related topics at The John Marshall Law School, DePaul University College of Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law and Azusa Pacific University (CA), as well as served as a panelist on various other entertainment-related continuing legal education courses. Michelle is an author and editor of the Litigation and Industry Updates Column of the ABA’s Entertainment & Sports Lawyers Journal and has also had numerous articles published by the Chicago Music Guide.

In addition, Michelle serves as Chair of Swanson Martin & Bell, LLP’s Community Service/Pro Bono Committee and proudly volunteers her time as President of the Associate Board and as a pro bono attorney to Lawyers for the Creative Arts, a non-profit organization that provides free legal services to eligible clients in all areas of the arts. She also currently serves as Events Chair for the Chicago Chapter of Women in Music, a non-for-profit organization dedicated to fostering equality in the music industry through the support and advancement of women. She recently served as Chair of the Young Lawyers Division for the Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel, where she was recognized as the Rising Star recipient and received a Meritorious Service Award and President’s Commendation.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in these articles constitutes general information and guidance and shall not be construed as legal advice applicable to or provided for any particular person or entity, and shall not be deemed to create an attorney-client relationship between Ms. Wahl and anyone who elects to read and/or rely, to any extent, on the material provided herein. In that respect, Ms. Wahl hereby expressly and specifically disclaims any such legal relationship, but encourages any person or entity seeking a legal advocate pertaining to the issues addressed and discussed herein to contact her directly for further information. Ms. Wahl may be reached at Swanson, Martin & Bell, LLP (330 N. Wabash, Suite 3300, Chicago, IL 60611 or via telephone at her direct line: (312) 222-8585 or e-mail at: mwahl@smbtrials.com.