Copyright, Songwriters, and The World of Ownership

We All Share

By: Deeann D. Mathews 09 Nov | 2016

So, here's the dream: you visit a new neighborhood with some friends. You see all these empty lots, but they are full of good wood, good bricks, good steel, and good cement, just waiting for someone to come and build a house with them. There are a lot of good-looking old houses that just need a little updating to make them comfortable for modern living. You look for signs showing how much these lots and houses cost. Every sign says, “Free!”


Of course, this would be confusing – what in the world is going on? So, you step up to one of the friendly homeowners and ask about the neighborhood. The homeowner smiles and says, “Oh, yes, those lots are available to any architect. Get some people together, and build a house on any one, two, or a dozen. You build them, you own them; it's just that simple. As for those old houses, get some people together, fix one, two, or a dozen up, and they're yours."

Of course, your next question would be, “What is this place?”

“Oh, this is the United States of America. This has been the law of the land since 1790.”


 And then, of course, you would wake up from your dream in the real United States of America, where a place to live can be hard to come by. But in the world of intellectual property – particularly a type of intellectual property known as copyright, our dream of creating and owning valuable things together is not very far off at all.


What is #copyright, exactly? Well, when you look at it you can see the words copy and right. A simple way, then, is to understand copyright as the exclusive right for the creator of a piece of music, a story, a poem, a picture, a drawing, a play, or other types of creative expression to copy, publish, perform, and distribute their work. Now, the creator can share or assign this right to a company – like, for musicians, a publishing or record company – who would then take on the role of publication and distribution. But the right belongs originally with the creator of the music. That is, a songwriter is as much an owner of property as a homeowner.

Think about this for a second. Love it or hate it, the United States is a capitalist country, where the laws are designed primarily to benefit owners or capital. Love it or hate it, that's the way it is. But also consider this: since 1790, the United States has conceded that not just landowning people, but creative people also can create value from their ideas, and have the right to legal recognition and protection for a fixed period of time. Right now, people who create music have copyright protection for their lifetime, plus 70 years – long enough for your children and grandchildren to eat off of a song you create today!

That is, dear songwriters, you are not just making beautiful songs – you are owners of property among owners of #property.

Remember the empty lots in our example, where if you build one, two, or a dozen houses, you own them? If you are a songwriter, that is your reality – copyright means you own as many songs as you create, from the moment you create them. They are your property, to copy, perform, publish, and distribute as you see fit, yours with all those you choose to work with.


Remember the fixer-upper houses that you can fix up and own in our example? Those would be songs and pieces of music that are so old the copyright has expired, and they now belong to what is called the public domain, available to anyone to use. In the United States, anything written before 1923 is already in the public domain – take one, two, or a dozen such songs, and change them at least 20 percent, and you have created songs new enough so you can own them for yourself. 

You may be thinking – “OK. I'm an owner among owners as a songwriter, and I love working with other songwriters – but how do we make all these advantages work for all of us?” My next posts will cover those very items.

But, if you can't wait, see the link at the very bottom – in my book, The Freedom Guide for Music Creators, you'll find more detail about copyright and what it is in chapter 1.

And finally, at the end of every article, I'll be posting a song lyric idea for you to work with and enjoy. Here's the one for this article: “The world is bigger than it ever seemed.”


Deeann D. Mathews is a #composer, #songwriter, and music teacher living in San Francisco, and also the author of The Freedom Guide for Music Creators.



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