Copyrights, trademarks, and patents protect your intellectual property (IP). Intellectual property is a creation of an original thought translated into a tangible form. Writing a song is an excellent example of this. A songwriter will think of the lyrics in his/her head and then put it on paper. Once it’s on paper, it’s in a tangible form. If a producer has a drum pattern in his/her head and they input the model into Pro Tools it is now in a physical form. In this article, we will focus on copyrights, as it is often the most relevant for musicians and creators.
Copyright means “the right to copy.” Things that can be copyrighted are music, lyrics, sound recordings, videos, artwork, photographs, and melodies. Other forms of works can also be copyrighted. An idea CANNOT be copyrighted. For example, if you have an idea for a song about pink sunglasses and you have it all laid out in your head, but never write it down, record it, or create it in a tangible form, it cannot be copyrighted because it is just an idea. Also, names, logos, symbols, short phrases, and inventions cannot be copyrighted, but those things are protected by trademark or patent, which we discuss later.
Once you translate your original thought into a tangible form you can begin the copyrighting process. In order to register your new work you will need to visit copyright.gov (United States Copyright Office). This is the only place you should trust to copyright your material. There are many false perceptions of how to copyright your work, one such example is the “poor man’s copyright”. This is when you take your CD, lyrics, artwork, etc. and mail it to yourself. Some people believe the government stamp/seal with the date on the envelope will prove you made the work and give you copyright protection. This is 100% false and this method cannot help you in a court of law. Additionally, there are many agencies and individuals who are willing to help file a copyright for you (often for an additional fee). Depending on your case, it may be smart to simply file it yourself and save some cash or to hire a reputable lawyer with copyrighting experience. A good starting point is to educate yourself on the finer details of your specific case at copyright.gov. They are the primary source of all copyright law and material.
It’s important to mention that the moment your work is in a tangible medium it is considered copyrighted and becomes the property of the creator, but again unless you register with the U.S. Copyright Office, you cannot bring a copyright lawsuit to a court of law. Understand that if you are a work for hire musician who performs “works made for hire” you are not the author of the material. You are considered the employee. The person or company that hired you is the employer and the author of the material, which in turn makes them the copyright owner.
Copyright last the life of the author plus 70 years and the copyright owner has five exclusive rights, which are:
The right to copy
The right to prepare derivative works
The right to distribute
The right to perform publically
The right to display.
When marking a copyright notice on your content such as CD’s or your website use the following layout, © John Doe 2015. This shows the copyright owner as John Doe followed by the year created. To display multiple years use this arrangement, © John Doe 2010-2015.
The United States has agreements with other countries to honor each other’s copyright laws, which means you are protected internationally. Even though these deals are in place, the U.S. does not have agreements with every country. To learn more about international protection, it is best to speak with an entertainment lawyer or attorney as this issue becomes very complicated quickly. If you are on a tight budget like most artists are, read the International Copyright Relations of the United States, a free .pdf on the copyright.gov website that can give anyone a good starting point to find solutions to a specific case in international copyright law.
A Trademark protects names, logos, symbols, and short phrases such as “I’m loving it.” A service mark and sound mark are types of trademarks, but usually, the term trademark is used for all three. A service mark is used for services, sound marks are used for sounds, and trademarks are used for goods.
As a musician, it’s essential to trademark your name early in your career. There have been multiple instances where artists sign the rights to their name to the record label after they get signed. If the label owns your name, you will not be able to release new music under that name unless you want that money to go back to the record label. That’s sometimes why we see artists start out with one name and end up using another name later in their career.
It’s also important to trademark your companies associated with your music. If you own a production company or any kind of entertainment entity, we suggest protecting those names as well. Use the ™ and ® symbols to make people aware of your trademark. You can use ™ without filing for a trademark as this symbol shows you are claiming ownership of the name. Place the symbol on the upper right corner as follows, John Doe™. In order to use the ®, you must file your name with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and it must be granted. Place the symbol on the upper right corner as follows, John Doe®.
Trademarks can be filed at a state level or federally. Even though you may not feel the need to file federally, it’s a good idea to do so when you’re a serious musician. It is a first come, first, serve basis. Don’t let anyone else beat you to your unique trademark! Another reason to file federally is the enhanced protection. If you only file in your state your name can still be used in other states in the U.S. A federal trademark will last 10 years and can be renewed during the 9th and 10th year. As for international protection consult a lawyer or attorney, as laws can be different in each country.
To file a trademark visit uspto.gov (The United States Patent and Trademark Office). Trademarks can be more difficult to submit compared to copyright. It is recommended that you consult with a lawyer or attorney before filing. However, if you have experience filing trademarks, or don’t feel the need to ask a lawyer or attorney you can file on your own.
A patent prohibits others from making, using, or selling an invention in the U.S. and other countries. Patents are used for machines, processes, the composition of matter, and articles of manufacture. You cannot patent ideas, laws of nature, artistic works (copyright), and offensive & not useful inventions.
Most musicians typically don’t need to file a patent since copyright or trademark much better protect their creative art. With technology always increasing you may find the need to file a patent to protect a novel invention that you create. If you do need to file visit uspto.gov (The United States Patent and Trademark Office). Like trademarks, we recommend consulting with an attorney to file a patent and speak with them about protection internationally.
A utility and plant patent usually last for 20 years, but for design patents, which is more than likely, the kind of patent a musician or creative person will file last 14 years.
Ensure you always protect your original creations, names, and inventions. Be smart and protect yourself and your brand!