EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT MELODY COPYRIGHT LAW
Intellectual property is extremely important to artists, especially in this increasingly digital age. IP is the framework for compensation that integrates artists into the market economy. It provides protection and incentives for artists, and helps to separate service from entrepreneurship. Most importantly, it creates value. Creativity cannot truly be valued if it is being copied by everyone.
You may think you understand copyright law, but it is not so straight forward, especially when pertaining to melodies. But fear not! By the time you are done reading this article, you will know everything you need to know about melodies and copyright laws.
The first thing you need to know is that copyrights are only granted to melodies that are secured in a fixed tangible form. This can be in the form of a sound recording of the musician performing the melody, or in the form of sheet music. So basically, a melody that you sing to yourself isn’t protected by copyright until it is in a fixed, tangible form.
Next, copyright is automatic upon creation, the creation being the fixed, tangible form we just talked about. You don’t need to register a melody to receive copyright protection once the melody is fixed.
Here is where it may get a little complicated. There are 2 types of claims for copyright melodies. The first is the copyright of musical composition. This recognizes the songwriters as creators of the song. Melodies can be copyrighted as compositions if they are fixed as sheet music, or a recording. There can also be claims for recorded music. Simply put, this means that the artist can only register the copyright in their sound recording, while the songwriter can register for both.
Next, I think it is important that you understand the length of a term for copyrighted materials. Melodies don’t stay protected forever, and eventually, all melodies will enter the public domain. In Canada, melodies, and any type of published work stay protected for the duration of the life of the creator plus 50 years after their death. In the U.S.A it is the life of the creator plus 70 years. Once melodies are in the public domain, anyone is free to use them however they like, with no repercussions.
If you want even more depth, and want to know every single detail about copyright law in Canada, look at Bill C-11, which is the Copyright Act. You can read more here.
So now that you are all are experts in copyright law, I think it is time to dive into some cases. There have been hundreds, even thousands of melody lawsuits throughout the years! The first one we are going to take a look at involves The Rolling Stones and The Verve, and took place in 1997. I think we all know the song ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ by The Verve. Well what if I told you
that Mick Jagger was getting all the royalties from this song. Spoiler alert, he is! Wait what? How is this possible? Well my friends, Richard Ashcroft found himself in a melody lawsuit.
Ashcroft wrote all of the original lyrics for the song, but he sampled instrumental backing from a version of the Rolling Stones’ song “The Last Time”, which was recorded in 1965. Now the crazy thing here is that the Verve actually licensed a five-note segment from recording, and agreed to a deal where they would obtain 50% of the royalties. The Stones’ manager, Allen Klein, claimed that The Verve used a larger section than they had originally agreed to. Long story short, The Verve lost ALL of the rights to their greatest hit. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards even have song writing credits on “Bittersweet Symphony”.
This particular case poses numerous questions. Was this a just verdict? Did The Rolling Stones really deserve to get song writing credits? Should The Verve have just licensed more of the song? Did The Stones’ only go after this song because of the immense amount of success it was getting?
This case also acts as a cautionary tale for artists. Even though The Verve had licensed a sample of song, and put their own spin on the original sample by layering numerous instruments, they still lost all of their rights.
Now let’s fast forward to about 20 years later, and look at the case of Justin Bieber and White Hinterland. In 2016, indie-pop artist White Hinterland filed lawsuit against Bieber over his 2015 hit “Sorry”. The artist claimed that the song mimicked the “unique characteristics of the female vocal riff” from her 2014 track “Ring the Bell”.
You can read more about the case here from when we blogged about it previously.
Bieber continuously claimed that he did not steal the song, and many felt that White Hinterland’s case had no grounds. Experts felt that the details of the two melodies were not enough to claim copyright infringement. Jeff Peretz, a professor of music theory at NYU said that although they are very similar, ultimately they are not the same melody.
This case also poses similar questions as the previous case. Did White Hinterland only sue because of the popularity Bieber was getting, or did she truly feel that her creativity was being stolen? Was the similarity of the melodies simply a coincidence? Should Bieber have just given her a song writing credit before this lawsuit blew up in the media?
Wow, that was a lot of information! But let’s look at what you’ve learned. You now know why intellectual property is important and how to obtain copyright protection. You know the 2 types of copyrights for melodies, and the length of a term. You’ve analyzed a case that took place in the past, and a recent case. And most importantly, you know where to go for more info (Bill C-11)! You’re basically qualified to be an entertainment lawyer now! Just kidding. But, you do have a good foundation, and if you are an artist, this is extremely important. If you have any questions or comments, let us know!