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I am a musician. I want to perform music. I do I do this without being sued into oblivion?

(I am particularly interested in UK law.)

As I understand it, a specific sound recording (of anything) is protected by copyright, but the specific pattern of musical notes that make up a song is also protected (and the rights might belong to somebody different). So even if I don't use any copyrighted sound recordings, if I were to play a song that's recognisable, I would still be sued.

When looking at a song, I believe there are three possibilities:

  1. The song was written so many centuries ago that nobody holds the rights to it any more. (E.g., Bach is presumably out of copyright now.)

  2. You wrote the song yourself, so you own the rights to it.

  3. Somebody else owns the rights to it.

Obviously, it's the 3rd case that presents a problem. In theory, you find out who owns the rights, and ask them whether you can use the song. Maybe they say yes, maybe they say no. In reality, it's not like you can just phone Sony BMG (or whoever) and chat to them about it. And even if you could, they'll want tens of millions of dollars to license the song, which I obviously don't have.

This appears to mean that it is actually impossible to ever play any song that people will recognise.

Am I correct in my interpretation of the law? Is there some way around this problem?

  • Bach was never in copyright, he wrote about 200 years before the concept existed. – Dale M Oct 3 '15 at 11:44
  • Not sure why this was downvoted. Surely there are millions of musicians all over the world wondering about this... – MathematicalOrchid Oct 3 '15 at 12:56
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Most countries have compulsory or statutory licences for exactly these situations. You enter a licence agreement with a collecting society, pay them licencing fees, and give them a record of the music you perform. They in turn then distribute royalties to the rights holders.

The exact details of which licence you'll need depends on your country, the types of events you will perform at, the frequency of the events, the size of the audience etc. It may be the venue's responsibility to obtain the licence instead of the performer, or both the venue and the performer may need to. I don't have any experience of this, and if I did my experience would be useless to yours in the UK ;).

But luckily the UK has an easy to find website which tells you just where you need to go. You will need to get a licence from an organisation called PRS for Music.

  • I've looked at the PRS website a couple of times. It seems to be entirely dedicated to commercial entities that want to play music to their paying public. There seems to be nothing about musicians wanting to play music... – MathematicalOrchid Oct 3 '15 at 12:47
  • @MathematicalOrchid Recorded music is covered by a different licence. Well actually it looks like its covered by two licenses, one of which is also a PRS license. But the PRS website very clearly covers both recorded and live music. – curiousdannii Oct 3 '15 at 13:23
  • In America, the place I would go to is called ASCAP (American Society For Composers, Authors, and Publishers). – Libra Jul 9 '16 at 9:10
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There are two basic copyrights held by the original artist (or their publisher/record co): copyright in the songwriting, and copyright in the sound recording.

If you want to play someone else's song in public, you have to pay a performance royalty. If you want to spin someone else's recording in public, same thing.

If you want to record someone else's song, you're doing something called a "cover" version. You would need a "mechanical license" to do that, in the USA it's a statutory payment, managed by the Harry Fox Agency. It is a per-copy-manufactured payment.

This is something that happens a million times a day, everywhere in the world. It's not some weird legal anomaly that you've stumbled into here.

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