Music Performance Copyright Laws

By Anna Assad

An artist with a registered copyright has the right to take legal action against someone who is copying or distributing her work without permission. A person who records or distributes copies of a performance of copyrighted music—a digital copy of a live concert, for example—without the artist's consent is subject to criminal and civil remedies under the United States Copyright Act. State laws may add extra penalties and remedies to a case of music performance copyright infringement, as per Chapter 11 of the Act.

Unauthorized Performance Recordings

Making an unauthorized recording of a live music performance for any reason, including public viewing or sale of performance video, audio or images is a violation of U.S. copyright laws. This includes transmission of a music performance without actually recording, such as streaming video directly to a public website using a device, tape-recording, and other methods of audio or video recording.

Personal Performance Recordings

If a person makes a recording of his own performance of another person's music, he still needs permission from that copyright holder. However, if the music is in the public domain, permission is not needed. The public domain consists of works no longer under copyright. The copyright may have expired on its own or the artist may have failed to renew the copyright. Copyright terms vary by type of work and year created. For example, music published before 1923 is now in the public domain, but music published after 1977 might remain copyrighted for seventy years after the artist's death.

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Civil Penalties

The Copyright Act allows copyright holders to get a civil court injunction to stop the infringement—for example, a court order directing a website to take down a video of a live performance—and seize all the unauthorized materials, such as DVD copies. The artist can sue in civil court for damages arising as a result of the infringement but must chose between receiving actual damages or statutory damages. Actual damages are the total amount of money the court determines the holder lost and the infringer gained. Statutory damages are monetary awards the court can give the copyright holder regardless of how much the artist actually lost because of the infringement. At the time of publication, the maximum award for statutory damages is $150,000 per work, if the infringer willfully committed the act.

Criminal Penalties

A person who committed copyright infringement with respect to music performances may face criminal penalties. If the infringement was committed so the person could profit or gain a commercial advantage, or if he reproduces one or more works within a 180-day period that have a total sale value of over $1,000, he's subject to criminal penalties. A person who knowingly prepares a copyrighted work for distribution over a public computer network is also subject to a jail sentence. Criminal proceedings must be started within five years of the infringement. Criminal sentences vary, depending on the amount of copies produced, the method used and the retail value of the copies. Sentences for copyright infringement for profit or commercial advantage at capped at 10 years; sentences for reproduction over a 180-day period are capped at three years for a first offense and six years for a second; and sentences for network distribution can't exceed five years for a first offense and ten years for a second. All sentences might include fines at the court's discretion.

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How Are Copyright Laws Enforced?

A copyright for an original work of authorship gives the copyright owner a set of property rights. During the term of the copyright, the copyright owner has the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute copies of the work, prepare derivative works, and perform and display the work. A copyright owner also has the right to authorize others to use her work. Copyright laws prohibiting the unauthorized use of copyrighted works are enforced through civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions.

Song Lyrics & Copyright Laws

Copyright law protects all aspects of an artistic work, as long as the work is original and has been reduced to a tangible medium. Song lyrics, for example, are protected as soon as they are recorded, whether in audio or written form. Although you don’t need to register your song lyrics with the U.S. Copyright Office to enjoy copyright protection, registration makes it easier to prove that you wrote the lyrics before the infringer did and allows you to collect damages without proving economic harm.

Punishment for Violating Copyright Laws

Copyright law provides the copyright holder with a legal monopoly on his original works of authorship. Such works include music, literature, art and even software algorithms. The rationale for punishing those who infringe copyrights is that infringement deprives copyright holders of the fruits of their labor, thereby providing an economic disincentive to produce such works in the first place.


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