So, one of the things I like to write about on this blog is reflections on whatever textbook I’ve been reading (Protip: If you drop out of college to make a living in the music industry you’re going to be reading a lot of textbooks) and recently I’ve been spending a lot of time studying copyright law. Now, I’m not going to claim to understand it, like, at all. I’m going to need to go through at least a couple more textbooks and to keep taking notes if I want even a passing understanding, but it has given me some ideas, and I was able to pick out a few key notions that I think are going to be important for any indie band to understand as they start to progress in their careers. In fact – copyright law is so important that it can impact your career from day one.
The most basic concept to understand about copyright law is that if you write something original, then you automatically have the copyright on it. Of course, if you write it with a friend, or you even play it in front of someone, things can instantly get more complicated. In a similar fashion things get a little out of hand after you die, largely because Congress seems to keep changing the god damn laws every five minutes. (Seriously, it’s like copyrights extend indefinitely now.) The important thing is that if you can prove that you wrote a thing, or came up with an idea before someone else, then you should be covered. That’s why it’s important to record stuff as you progress, otherwise you could be setting yourself up to lose a whole lot of money.
This leads us to perhaps the most important aspect of this for indie bands. All things considered – the odds are you don’t need to worry about the trademarks on your songs. In the early days it’s ridiculously unlikely that those songs will make you any money, and if your career seems to be going to a point where they would make money there are other ways to make those agreements and protect your rights. What you NEED to worry about once you start really getting stuff moving is a trademark on your name. There are a frankly ridiculous number of bands out there who don’t own the trademarks on their bands name and a lot of them get burned. This can lead to a ton of complication down the road, and it only costs like seventy bucks to obtain – so why not go for it?
Many of the issues with copyright law stem from the fact that you need to be able to document as much as possible, ad when you’re starting a band when you’re young and doing drugs with your friends it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to bother to do this. In all likelihood you think you will be friends forever and this isn’t always the case. But look. If y’all are in a good place right now then there is no shame in going back and working this out with your buddies. Even if you want to register all the songs under your band name, make sure that you have some form of signed agreement with you stating as much. Obviously having a record label can help with that, but be careful even then – because once real money starts to come in you have to start worrying about what that is going to mean for your bands interpersonal relationships, things can decay surprisingly quickly.
As for how you document things, there are a lot of ways to do it. As I previously mentioned a contract is usually good enough, but due to the nebulous nature of copyright law you can often get away with just a voice recording at the beginning of a track or even a time stamped Word document with some details about your song. You should almost certainly go to a lawyer about this. That’s one of the real takeaways of this article by the by, lawyers are going to become your best friends, I know that sounds kind of lame, but unfortunately that’s the way it has to be. Your band is a business, and like every business you need to be protected and have everything lined up in a way that is good, right and salutary in the eyes of our lords, the IRS.
Before we wrap up – I would like to make a quick aside. One thing you’re probably wondering is how all of this impacts piracy. Well – turns out that not only is pretty much everything piracy, if you’re the one distributing content that isn’t yours, but being on the receiving end of pirated material is not at all illegal. After all – there you are only sinning by not knowing that the pirated material was in fact pirated. This leads to a lot of weird moral and ethical problems that I don’t especially want to get in to right now, just be aware that there’s an upcoming article here based off of a little book called Freedom and Culture.
So I guess I’m kind of a square now. I stayed up late on a weeknight to draft an article about copyright law and I’m not even drunk. But guess what – that’s what the music industry does to you. The real point that needs to be made is that you need to be protected. You need to find yourself a rock and roll lawyer and start documenting shit. As well as things might be going now – don’t count on them going down so well in the future. The music industry is a weird thing and one that is oftentimes hard to negotiate your way through – especially when so many people are faking their way (Hell, I know I am) so bone up, take these basics and run with them, you don’t want to regret years of your life somewhere on down the trail.