I’d like to introduce you to Julliard trained composer, conductor, string arranger and music publisher, Dan Coleman. Dan is the co-founder of Modern Works Music Publishing which he started in 1999. Dan has also spoken on music publishing and copyright matters for BMI, Harvard and MIT among others. His commentary below is well worth your time and attention. Enjoy!
I’d like to address some of the fears that cause songwriters to tremble in their boots.
After all, when you decided to be a songwriter, you committed to a scary profession. At least if you made shoes for a living, you could rest assured that many people would need the fruit of your labor. But songs are only worth something after your audience has decided your music speaks to them, a process which is out of your control. And if you’re like most artists, it frightens you to lose control. Artists are control freaks, to some degree, because it takes a special kind of control to make something out of nothing.
Songwriters are inherently brave to make art in the first place. Most non-creative types don’t know where to begin. So if there is one point to take away from this article, it is: You have more power than you think.
What follows are my answers to two questions I’m frequently asked, which betray some misplaced fears among songwriters.
I like this question because it implies that the songs are worth stealing. It’s good for a songwriter to be confident. By asking this question, the songwriter is imagining that her songs are like little chunks of uranium that could potentially generate an atomic explosion, and they must be jealously guarded lest they fall into the wrong hands.
The real question is: what do you mean by “stealing?” And why would someone want to steal your work?
Let’s draw an important distinction between copyright infringement and plagiarism.
When someone plagiarizes your work, that person passes off your ideas as their own, without crediting you. Plagiarism is a serious and hurtful act, but guess what? Copyright law does not (strictly speaking) protect you against it. Why? Because copyright law does not protect ideas.
Instead, copyright law allows you to control who gets to make copies of your original work, because we hope that each copy can generate some income for you.
Let’s say you write a song about a girl threatening to apply the full force and effect of a baseball bat to her boyfriend’s car windshield, if he were to ever cheat on her. Or you write a different song that uses an E major chord for two bars, followed by A major, then E major, then B major, then A, then E.
Do these ideas sound familiar? Sure! Are they copyrightable as songs? Nope. Because these are just abstract descriptions that bear the same relation to real songs as the phrase “orphaned hero rescues a princess and saves the universe from the dark side” bears to certain famous science fiction movies.
Once you’ve written your song down on paper, or recorded it, you have something tangible that could be literally copied. Copyright law permits you to charge money each time someone makes a copy of your work.
Fortunately, your original work is protected by copyright law as soon as you write it down or record it. You don’t have to take any special steps, although registering your copyright with the Copyright Office affords you certain extra protections in court.
If you are afraid that someone might take your music and make money with it without compensating you, then you can take refuge in copyright law.
But if you write a hit song, it’s much more likely that somebody, somewhere, will crawl out of the woodwork and claim you copied the song from him. It’s quite a bit less likely that someone will make your original song a hit without you. Remember: copyright is about money.
So, what about plagiarism? Among musicians, acts–or accusations–of plagiarism rarely happen in a vacuum. They usually arise out of a toxic cesspool of bad feelings, jealousy, and imperiousness, which you probably will see coming. Other than cultivating your ability to judge character and use common sense, the best defense against bad faith dealing is to “get it in writing.” A simple email agreement between your co-writers or bandmates before embarking on a project will go a long way toward protecting your interests. And if there’s a lot at stake, go get a lawyer to help you draft a contract.
Next time a new restaurant opens in your home town, ask to speak to the owner and tell him that you would like to give him the opportunity to serve you a delicious meal for free. After all, it will be good exposure for him. You’ll tell your friends all about it.
Let me know how that goes.
Artists seem to have a monopoly on this kind of thinking. This is probably because the feeling they get when someone reacts to their creativity is very similar to the feeling they get when someone tells them they look pretty. (Does this song make me look fat?) Writing a song is a personal effort and makes songwriters feel vulnerable. But it’s also very hard work, and songwriters deserve to be paid. Remember that people who want to use your music would not be asking you if they could make something suitable themselves. They need you.
While every situation you encounter as a songwriter will be unique and will require a tailored response, I hope the above ideas embolden you to think differently about the value of your work.