What you should know
Under the law in Canada, when a song is created, copyright exists immediately and automatically for the music, the lyrics (the words) and the combination of music and lyrics. The owner of the copyright is the person who creates the song (the lyricist or author) and the person who writes the music (the composer).
This right can be assigned by a written contract to another party, such as a publisher or recording company. (Copyright can’t be assigned by a verbal agreement.)
A song is called a composition. A recording of the song is called a master recording. A separate and independent copyright applies to the recording.
Copyright owners (in some cases, the authors and composers, but often the publishers and recording companies under written contracts) can control copying and distributing of their compositions and recordings.l
It is generally illegal to copy songs and recordings without permission of the copyright holder. But there are some exceptions.
For example, one exception allows you to reproduce a song for private purposes if you legally bought the original copy of the song. Other exceptions allow you to make a backup copy of music and reproduce a work for criticism or review.
Another exception allows you to use a work in creating a new work, as long as it is solely for non-commercial purposes. This exception is designed to allow non-commercial user-generated content, such as YouTube videos.
To publicly play or perform music created or recorded by another lyricist or musician, you, your label, or the place where you play must pay a fee or royalty. So if you perform cover songs with a group in public, a musicians’ collective may ask you (or the place where you’re playing, called a venue) to pay a royalty. You also have to pay royalties if you record cover songs, whether you make CDs or sell them online.
Musicians’ collectives include:
- The Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (or SOCAN). SOCAN can demand a play list and royalty fees for pieces performed.
- The Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency. It collects mechanical royalties for songwriters and publishing companies.
- Connect Music Licensing (formerly, Audio-Visual Licensing Agency or AVLA). They collect royalties for owners of master recordings, something that disc jockeys should pay special attention to.
- Re:Sound. It collects fair compensation for artists and record companies for their performance rights.
The same laws on copyright and royalties protect you too if you write and record your own music. You should register with SOCAN, which collects licensing fees and royalties for member songwriters and musicians whenever their compositions are broadcast on radio or TV or performed in public. (That’s done through the Canadian Intellectual Property Office.)
As a performer (as opposed to a songwriter), you are normally paid on the day of performance just for that performance. You have no rights in the music beyond the day of performance. Generally, you aren’t entitled to any other payment.
But there are exceptions. For example, if your performance is recorded and the recording is later used on TV or radio or in some other commercial way. In such a case, you would be owed further payments called royalties. The organization recording you should ask for your permission before recording you.
Most of the time, a group works together with the common goal of earning money, and they make decisions together. Legally, without any other agreement or incorporation, the group or band will be considered a partnership.
The importance of making an agreement
The arrangement among members should be made in writing by all members. It’s best to set out the rights and responsibilities of each member, how members may join or leave, who writes the music, who owns the band name and so on. Misunderstandings can lead to break-ups and even lawsuits, so take time to make sure everyone understands the agreement.
A band leader can be a proprietor
Sometimes, a group leader hires and pays the musicians and makes all the decisions for a particular kind of show. That person is called a band leader and is legally a proprietor. The hired musicians are independent contractors or employees only. They have no ownership interest in the group, unless a different agreement has been negotiated and put in writing.
A group can carry business as a company
A group can also consider carrying on business as a company. The group may do this if their earnings are significant or if they are signed to publishing or recording deals. Individual members of the group may also incorporate their own companies (called “loan out” companies), which can offer certain tax benefits if the musician’s earnings are significant.
It’s important as a group becomes popular to ensure that another group isn’t using your group name. To properly protect your band name, you need to consider registering it as a trademark. Other registration methods, such as securing a domain name for a website, will not protect you fully. See our information on trademarks, copyright and other intellectual property.
It’s important to discuss writing credits for original music and agree on who the writers are. Is the music created by the band, or only by certain members? This should be written down for each piece of music, and agreed to by all. Sometimes the co-writing credits involve people outside the band, and those people need to be acknowledged.
Take steps to protect the band's copyright
Since copyrights arise immediately when a song is created, evidence of when a song was created can be critical if you have a copyright dispute. You may also need to show that you (or your band) actually created the song.
Formally registering the work with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office is one very powerful way to prove you created a song at a certain time. But there are other ways, such as emails and other electronic files. And you don’t have to register.
If you keep notes, communications (such as email messages) and other material (such as song and lyric versions) relating to the song, those can be valuable evidence in a copyright dispute. There are several inexpensive online storage tools available (check out secure cloud storage).
Also, you can document who wrote the song (including the date and the percentage each band member owns) and have everyone sign it. That can be good evidence of the copyright.
Copyright cannot be fully protected only by mailing the original music, lyrics, and recording to yourself by registered mail. This may help verify the date the work was created, but it alone doesn’t connect the creation to the creator. So generally, this is not an effective way to protect copyright.
Registering a song
After a song is recorded, it has to be distributed (by CD and online). It also has to be marketed. And a band should make appearances to support the recording.
At this stage, a group usually hires a manager and agent, and looks for deals with publishers and record companies. Make sure everyone is clear on their rights and responsibilities, the commission to be paid to the manager and agent, and how long the agreements last. These should be put in writing and ideally reviewed by a lawyer.
All copyrights expire eventually. After copyright expires, a work goes into the public domain. Generally, in Canada, copyrights expire 50 years after the author dies (plus the rest of the calendar year when the author died). There are some exceptions. For example, if the author is anonymous, the copyright term is 50 years from the end of the year of publication.
Once a work is in the public domain, usually anyone can copy and use it. But other rights that do not expire may still apply (such as personality rights). So it’s a good idea to get legal advice before using or copying any works you think may be in the public domain, unless your use fits clearly into an exception.
Who can help
A good resource is Musicians and the Law in Canada by Paul Sanderson. The book is available at most libraries and is published by Carswell.
Another good book is Confessions of a Record Producer by Moses Avalon.
Music BC has many resources for musicians, including seminars, a library and technical help. Initial membership is free.
This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
Reviewed in March 2018
Time to read: 8 minutes