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Know Your Rights: Intellectual Property in the Music Industry. Copyright, Trademarks, and Patents Explained

Intellectual property and music go hand-in-hand. Intellectual Property or “IP” for short—is the cornerstone of the music business. The IP that artists create, own, control, and license is how they get paid and protect their artistic creations. The fundamental forms of IP in the music industry are: copyrights, trademarks, and patents.

What do copyrights, trademarks, and patents have in common? They are all creations of the mind. These creations can be artistic and literary works (copyrights), names and logos used in commerce (trademarks), or inventions (patents). Let’s take a closer look at each form of IP, and some examples of intellectual property in music.

Copyright and intellectual property infringement

Copyright and intellectual property infringement

A copyright is an original work that is fixed in a tangible form. The “originality” aspect means it wasn’t copied from another work, and fixation means that it has been recorded or transferred in some permanent way—like writing down song lyrics, or recording a melody on your phone. Examples of works that can be copyrighted are: musical compositions (songs), sound recordings, films and literary works (books). The moment that an original work is fixed, a copyright is created. If you write a great new song in your bedroom and record it on your laptop, a copyright has been created. That copyright is owned by its author, the person who created it, or jointly, if there were multiple contributors. The only time a copyright isn’t automatically owned by its author is when it’s created on a “work-for-hire” basis. Under copyright law, a “work-for-hire” is a work specifically commissioned by a third party, who is deemed to its author.

How do copyrights and music work?

copyright in music

The owner of a copyright has certain exclusive rights which include the right to:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Distribute copies of the work
  • Publicly perform the work
  • Create derivative works, and
  • Display the work

‍Every recorded song has two copyrights: one in the musical composition, and one in the sound recording. Under intellectual property law, music licensing is the use or exploitation of these exclusive rights. This is how music generates income:

Streaming a recording or including it on a CD or vinyl LP Duplicating sheet music of the song
Uploading a recording to a streaming service (e.g., Spotify), for digital sale (e.g., iTunes), or selling vinyl LPs or CDs Granting another artist permission to distribute recordings of your composition in physical and digital formats
Public Performance
Limited to streams and broadcasts on internet services and radio (e.g., Pandora)  Every time a musical composition is played in public, over the radio or online, or performed live, it is a public performance.
Public Display
Printing song lyrics on a t-shirt NOT APPLICABLE
Derivative Works
Sampling a recording. Adding new lyrics to an existing composition

So, the next time you stream a song on Spotify, remember that there are multiple exclusive rights of copyright involved.

The ownership, control, and licensing of sound recording copyrights is the record business. The ownership, control, and licensing of musical composition copyrights is intellectual property music publishing.

Copyright Protection

In order to get the most copyright protection available, artists should register their copyrights with the United States Copyright Office. This allows the copyright owner to file a copyright infringement lawsuit, and the possibility of statutory damages and recovery of legal fees in connection with those lawsuits.

For works created after 1978, a copyright exists for the life of the author plus 70 years.

Trademarks: Meaning and Examples

What is a trademark in music

A trademark is a word, phrase or symbol that designates the source of a good or service—think Nike for sneakers, or Louis Vuitton for handbags. In the music business, trademarks are artist or band names (Lady Gaga), musical instrument brand names (Fender), and company names (Universal Records).  

Trademarks are a unique form of IP because a trademark owner’s rights come from actually using it commercially. Trademarks are supposed to protect consumers from purchasing a product or service that they think is coming from someone else. Just like you wouldn’t want to drink Coke made in someone’s apartment if you thought it was Coca-Cola, you’d probably be upset to buy a ticket to see “Fleetwood Mac” to find out it was a polka band of the same name.  

Trademarks are also only filed for certain categories of goods and services. For example, Pandora is used for both a jewelry company, and an internet radio and music streaming service.  

What is the difference between trademark and copyright?

In order to maintain a trademark, its owner must continue to use it. This differs from a copyright. You could write and record a great song and whether or not you released it, you would still own copyrights in the sound recording and the musical composition.  

Trademark applications are filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”). When an application is filed, the applicant must either be using it actively in commerce, or plan on using it in the foreseeable future, which is referred to as “intent-to-use.”  

Unlike copyrights, which last for a specific period of time, trademarks can last as long as they continue to be used in commerce. Who knows, the members of Foreigner and their heirs, could be on tour forever.


Patents are property rights, which are considered “negative rights”—patent owners can exclude other people from making or using their inventions. In the music business, patents typically deal with technology and musical instrumentation.    


The two main types of patents applicable to the music industry are: 1) utility patents, which cover the functional aspects of a device or process (such as a tremolo bar, a guitar pickup, a bridge, etc.,); and 2) design patents, which cover the appearance of items, such as the shape of a guitar.

Patents last for 20 years from their initial filing with the USPTO.


The bottom line is that intellectual property plays a fundamental role in the music industry. IP protects the artistic creations of recording artists and songwriters and the use of IP is one of the primary ways in which artists derive income from their creative works. The principal forms of IP in the music business, copyrights, trademark, and patents, deal with written and recorded music, band and brand names, and inventions. Before signing any agreement concerning IP in the music business, you should consult an intellectual property music lawyer.

To learn more about intellectual property as it relates to the music industry, I recommend visiting Creative Intell Academy and investigating their Intellectual Property Overview course. There you will get more detail on the issues discussed above and a gain a truly comprehensive understanding of how copyright law and intellectual property ownership essentially drive the entire music industry. In full transparency, I’m part of the team who developed the course, and I can humbly say I believe it’s one of the best introductions to intellectual property and its role in the music business that you’ll find anywhere.

Max Verrelli
Post by Max Verrelli
Max Verrelli is a seasoned entertainment attorney who works with Creative Intell as a subject expert. He is based in New York City.