Copyright Laws on Copying Music

by Phil M. Fowler

The economic value in creating a piece of digital artwork, like a song, lies in the ability to control the use, reproduction, and distribution of the song. Accordingly, copyright laws protect musicians and other artists by giving them the exclusive right to control the use, reproduction and distribution of their songs. The underlying purpose of copyright law is to protect the value of a song, and thus encourage future artistic creation, by placing restrictions on the unauthorized copying of copyrighted music.

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Automatic Rights

A copyright is an automatic right under federal law. The musician does not have to do anything special to acquire a copyright in her music. Once the music is created and placed into a tangible form, the musician owns the copyright to that creation. Placing the work in tangible form includes writing down lyrics, writing down sheet music, or recording the song. Federal copyright laws do not even require the musician to give any kind of notice that she is claiming a copyright on her music. This means that you must assume every song is copyrighted, even if there is no copyright notice anywhere to be seen.

Legal Rights

A musician holding a copyright on a song has exclusive control over the use, reproduction, alteration and distribution of that song. This means the musician has the exclusive ability to benefit from, or earn profits from, that song. One way for another person to copy a song without violating the copyright is to obtain the musician's permission to do so. It is common, for example, for a musician to assign all of its copyright rights to a record label or management company.

Personal Use

Copying music, even copyrighted music, is not always illegal. Federal copyright laws allow one who purchases a song to copy the song for his own personal use. For instance, you can copy an album in order to have one copy at home, and one copy in your car. However, this does not mean you can copy a song and give it to a family member or friend.

Fair Use

Federal copyright laws also allows for "fair use" of music, which generally means you can use copyrighted music, without the musician's permission, for purposes that are not commercial in nature such as civic, charitable, religious or educational purposes. For example, you can generally copy a song into a PowerPoint presentation for a school project. It is not always clear what use is fair, and what use is actually copyright infringement.


Violating copyrights through the unauthorized copying of music can result in both civil and criminal penalties. The Federal Bureau of Investigation investigates criminal copyright violations, and the federal government can impose criminal penalties including fines and, potentially, imprisonment. And you may have to pay money to a copyright holder who is successful in a lawsuit against you. Importantly, you can face penalties even if your copying of the music does not result in any financial gain for you.