Music Copyright Law: A Chorus of Breaches

Updated: Nov 25, 2021

Have you ever wondered what the law says about music copyright? Maybe you have questioned how infringements of music copyright arise? Perhaps you are considering releasing your own music, but you are unsure about your rights?


In this Article we will cover all of these questions and more by answering your most frequently asked music copyright questions:

  1. What is music copyright law?

  2. Why do breaches of music copyright occur?

  3. What is the future of music copyright?



The importance of music copyright law can be underestimated. Most individuals are unsure of the rights to music ownership and even seasoned music artists still find themselves infringing existing artists’ copyrights. This can potentially lead to massive lawsuits, substantial payouts in damages and the infringing artist potentially losing ownership of the music which they created. Therefore, it is recommended that artists, musicians and producers understand how to legally protect their music and more importantly understand when they are in breach of another’s copyright.


What is music copyright law?


Intellectual property law provides legal remedies for creations of the mind, such as pictures symbols, inventions and music. A copyright, a patent and a trademark are the three major types of rights protected under intellectual property law.


Copyright law protects creations such as illustrations, literary works, photography, dramatic works, artistic works and music recordings. The purpose of copyright law is to prevent others from using the creator’s work without the copyright owner’s permission. This means that if an individual creates original music they immediately have the legal right of ownership to the music.


  • What are the rules of music copyright?

There is no copyright register in the UK. U.K copyright law automatically protects musical compositions and sound recordings created by an individual. This means that in the U.K the creator immediately has the exclusive right to sell, license or reproduce that piece of music.

However, if another person knowingly or unknowingly uses that piece of music or creates a musical composition which the court deems too similar, that person could find legal action being taken against them.


In contrast to trademarks, where an application for legal protection must be made, copyright ownership arises automatically once the work has been created.


In addition, the Berne Convention gives an individual the power to copyright their music in multiple countries, where it will be subject to national copyright laws.


For more information, contact the United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) at https: www.gov.uk/government/organisations/intellectual-property-office.


  • How long does copyrighted music last?

In the U.K music is copyrighted from the moment the work is created and the copyright ownership will remain throughout the creator’s life and then a further 70 years after the death of the creator. After this period the music composition will enter the public domain and any individual is legally allowed to use it without breaching copyright laws.


Why do breaches of music copyright occur?


Infringement of music copyright occurs due to a deliberate or mistaken act of plagiarism. There are several cases which illustrate the various ways in which an individual can find themselves infringing the music copyright of another.


Plagiarism

Plagiarism occurs where an individual takes another person’s creative e work and passes it off as their own.


The 1960’s band The Beach Boys were sued by Chuck Berry after releasing their smash hit ‘Surfin USA’.


The Beach Boys’ song was created as a tribute to Chuck Berry’s “sweet little sixteen”, but the court ruled it to be plagiarism due to its striking similarities with “sweet little sixteen”.


Subconscious plagiarism

Plagiarism can also occur if an individual subconsciously plagiarises another’s work.


This was the case when The Chiffons sued ex-Beatles member George Harrison because he used the same melody in The Chiffons’ song called “He’s so fine” for his song “my sweet lord”.


George Harrison admitted that the similarities between the two songs were undeniable. However, he maintained that the breach only occurred because he could not remember where he originally heard the song. He believed the inspiration to be wholly original. The court ruled it to be subconscious plagiarism.


Adding a beat to an existing piece of music

A google search for “music and plagiarism” would most certainly guide you towards the famous case of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” vs Queen’s “Under pressure”.


Although Vanilla Ice knew he was sampling a piece of music which belonged to Queen, he claimed that if he added a beat between those musical notes it would be more than enough to make that piece of music distinctly different from Queen’s copyrighted melody.


Queen successfully sued Vanilla Ice who went on to lose an undisclosed sum believes to be in millions of pounds, whilst also losing the exclusive writing credit for his most popular song.


Paying homage

When an artist or musician becomes famous they may feel the desire to pay homage to the ones who inspired them. Although this could be viewed as paying the highest form of respect to another, under music copyright law it can also be viewed as a breach of copyright.


Famous band Led Zeppelin released a song named “bring it on home”, which shared the same name as one created by Willie Dixon for Blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson. In addition, Led Zeppelin used the song’s Intro and Outro.


Willie Dixon did not appreciate Led Zeppelin’s homage and sued them for breach of copyright. The dispute was again settled out of court for a large undisclosed sum rumoured to be in the millions of pounds.


Imitating a vibe

The Smash-Hit single called “Blurred Lines” sung by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams was celebrated for inspiring a summer of dancing. However, the Marvin Gaye estate were also inspired to take legal action due to the song’s similarities to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up”.


The song was found to be an imitation of Marvin Gaye’s song after the judge considered the musical elements such as the chatter in the background, the use of a cowbells and the way brass instruments were utilised.


The Gaye estate successful sued the artists and were awarded a payout in the sum of 5 million dollars in addition to half of all future royalties.


Lifting a melody

A melody is a sequence of single notes that is considered musically satisfying. Ray Parker Jr famed for his Ghostbusters theme song was sued by Huey Lewis and the News for the melody he used for Ghostbusters being too similar to Huey Lewis’s “I want a new drug”.


Sampling a piece of music

Kanye West has been celebrated for releasing songs which have sampled other songs, such as his “all falls down” which sampled "Mystery of Iniquity," by Lauryn Hill.


However, in some instances, sampling is not received well by the original creator. When speaking to the L.A Times, ex member of music band the Turtles Mark Volman famously stated that, “Sampling is just a longer term for theft”.


This comment came after Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn successfully sued De la Soul after they released a song named “Transmitting live from mars”; a hit sampling 12 seconds of the Turtle’s song named “You showed me” written by McGuinn and Clark.


Sampling a piece of music longer than permitted

De La Soul can be vilified for not acquiring the necessary permission before sampling a piece of music. However, it is possible to acquire necessary permission but still find oneself being sued for overstepping the permission which was granted.


This was the case when the Verve sampled “the last time”, a song owned by the Rolling Stones, in their chart topping single named “Bitter Sweet Symphony”.


The Verve went on to use more of the instrumentals than they were authorised, and the resulting lawsuit saw the Verve lose 100% of the royalties and lose the writing credit on one of their highest earning songs.




Can you use copyrighted music for 30 seconds?


Using copyrighted music for 7, 20 or 30 seconds is a breach of copyright. There is no waiver for those who use copyrighted music for any length of time and there is no fair use clause in U.K copyright law which allows an individual to use such music for educational purposes.


  1. What is the future of music copyright?

The Blurred Lines case suggested that an element of a tune such as its tempo (the speed at which a piece of music should be played) or the overall feel could also be protected under copyright.


Katie Perry found herself a victim of such a suggestion when she was sued by Flame. Flame claimed that the singer’s song named “Dark Horse” used an ostinato (a pattern of 8 notes) which was copyrighted under his song called “Joyful Noise”. The artist and her producer were ordered to pay over $2.8 million pounds to Flame.


The most concerning factor is that as technology develops it increases the likelihood of individuals having access to the same affordable music production-technology which increases the risk of creating similar music and beats.


Fortunately, the Dark House decision was successfully appealed. It was argued that the song’s beat was not substantial or original enough to be protected by copyright. The judge ruled that such an individual element could not be independently protected: https://www.musicbusinessworldwide.com/katy-perrys-2-8m-dark-horse-copyright-infringement-verdict-has-been-overturned.



For the moment it seems that the basic building blocks of music are safe. However, the Dark Horse decision can potentially be appealed against as the presiding judge Christina A Snyder stated that if the case is appealed she will conditionally grant a retrial.


As music copyright law develops and affordable musical equipment becomes more widely available, it is clear that music copyright infringement cases are set to increase, as the potential of music sounding similar becomes more likely.


How can Pure Business Law help?


We are specialist Intellectual Property Solicitors based in Bedford and London and operating nationally. As intellectual property specialists we will protect your intellectual property rights and resolve any disputes which may arise regarding intellectual property ownership.


If you would like to discuss how to legally protect your intellectual property or discuss any issues, disputes concerning your intellectual property, or anything raised in this article please contact us and speak with one of our solicitors. Pure Business Law is regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and is a licensed member of the Law Society of England & Wales.