CMU:DIY Guides Music Copyright Library

CMU:DIY Guide: Music Copyright Explained

By | Last Updated: July 2022

Here we go – get to grips with the basics of music copyright – and how music copyright makes money – in five easy steps.

You can also download the slides that accompany the lecture version of this guide and access the more in-depth ‘Music Copyright Explained’ pack that CMU produced with the UK’s Intellectual Property Office. Plus check out more music copyright resources available elsewhere in the CMU library.


#01: There are two sets of music rights.
Copyright is a legal concept which provides creators with certain controls over the outputs of their creativity – which can then be exploited for profit.

Copyright provides this control in relation to the outputs of various different kinds of creativity. In music, we are mainly interested in two specific kinds of creative work that are both protected by copyright – songs and recordings.

By songs, we mean a combination of rhythm, melody and/or lyrics. Each song that is composed and written is protected by copyright.

Collectively, we refer to these as the ‘song rights’ – although you may also see them referred to as ‘publishing rights’.

By recordings, we mean a performance that is captured on record through a process of production and mastering. Each and every recording that is made is protected by copyright.

Collectively, we refer to these as the ‘recording rights’ – although you may also see them referred to as ‘master rights’.

It’s important to remember that in copyright terms these are separate rights – in a track you have a recording of a song, which means there are both recording rights and song rights in that one single track.

Because copyright law treats songs and recordings separately, so does the music industry. So, you have one strand of the industry focused on song rights – that’s the music publishing sector. And you have another strand of the industry focused on recording rights – that’s the record industry.

#02: Copyright allows music-makers to control what happens to their music.
As we said, copyright is all about control – ie giving music-makers control over what happens to their music, both their songs and their recordings.

Copyright law actually sets out a number of different ways in which a copyright owner has control over their work.

This includes control over…
• The reproduction of the music.
• The distribution of any copies of the music.
• The rental of any copies of the music.
• The adaptation of the music.
• The public performance of the music.
• The communication – or broadcast – of the music.
• The making available of the music over the internet.

In the music publishing sector, the reproduction and distribution controls are often grouped together and called the ‘mechanical rights’.

Meanwhile the performance, communication and making available controls are often grouped together and called the ‘performing rights’.

In the record industry, the performance and communication controls are often grouped together and called the ‘neighbouring rights’.

Different uses of music exploit different controls – so…

When you stream a track you exploit the making available and reproduction controls.

When you manufacture and sell a CD you exploit the reproduction and distribution controls.

When you play music on the radio you exploit the communication control.

When a song is performed live you exploit the performance control.

When a track is featured in a TV show you exploit the reproduction and communication controls.

When a track is remixed you exploit the adaptation and reproduction controls.

In all of these scenarios – and with any other uses of songs and/or recordings – if the person or company streaming, selling, playing, performing, featuring or remixing the music is not the copyright owner, they need to get permission from whoever is.

The copyright owner would usually sell that permission, and therefore make some money from their copyright. That process of selling permission is called music licensing.

#03: Music-makers work with business partners to manage their music rights.
Music-makers work with various business partners in the music industry to help them manage and monetise their copyrights.

With some uses of music, organisations called collecting societies issue licences to the users of music and collect any money that is due. They then distribute that money to whoever owns the copyright in the music that has been used.

Collecting societies are also known as collective management organisations (CMOs), performing right organisations (PROs) or music licensing companies. There are different collecting societies in every country – and in most places there are different societies for song rights and recording rights.

In the UK, there are two societies that manage song rights. Where collective licensing applies, PRS licenses the performing rights in songs and MCPS licenses the mechanical rights in songs. Though PRS and MCPS work very closely together.

In the UK, there is one society that manages recording rights whenever collective licensing applies, which is PPL.

Songwriters will also often work with rights administrators or music publishers, to manage and administrate their song rights, look for opportunities to collaborate or generate extra income, and to issue licences in those scenarios where collective licensing does not apply. With song rights, collecting societies issue licences in the majority of scenarios, although there are some revenue streams outside the collective licensing system.

Recording artists will also often work with music distributors or record labels, to manage and administrate their recording rights, to get their music to market and run marketing campaigns around their releases, and to issue licences in scenarios where collective licensing does not apply. With recording rights, collecting societies only issue licences when music is broadcast, webcast or performed in public.

Collecting societies charge a commission on any monies they process to cover all their costs, but are usually not-for-profit organisations owned by their members.

Rights administrators, music publishers, music distributors and record labels will take a cut of any revenue streams they are involved in – the size of the cut depending on the level of services and investments they provide.

Publishers and labels may also take actual ownership of the copyrights they are involved in – or at least some elements of the copyrights.

#04: Copyright is automatic – collaborators need to agree ownership.
Copyright is an automatic right. As soon as a song is written or a recording is made, a copyright exists. As a result, copyright law has to tell us who the default first owner is of any new copyright that is created.

In the UK, the default owner of a song copyright is whoever creates, composes and/or writes the song; while the default owner of a recording copyright is whoever organises for the sound recording to be made.

Copyrights can be co-owned. If multiple people write a song they co-own the resulting song copyright. If multiple people organise a recording session they co-own the resulting recording copyright. It is for the collaborators to decide how the copyright is split in percentage terms.

So, whenever people collaborate on making music, it’s really important to talk about rights. What rights have been created? Who is being cut into those rights as a co-owner? And what percentage of the copyright does each person own?

This needs to be agreed and documented in writing as quickly as possible. It can be documented in a formal contract or a single-page ‘split sheet’. Or even via an exchange of emails in which everyone responds to confirm what has been agreed. There are also apps that can be used to agree and document copyright ownership.

Whatever is agreed should then also be logged in the music industry’s official databases. These are usually run by collecting societies. So, in the UK, PRS runs the industry’s songs database and PPL runs the industry’s recordings database.

#05: Performers have rights even if they don’t own the copyright in a recording.
Performers often don’t own the copyright in the recordings they appear on. That maybe because a record label owns the copyright. Or because the main artist owns the copyright and they are a session musician. However, all performers also have their own rights.

First there are performer approval rights. When a performer’s performance is recorded – wherever that might happen – whoever organises the recording must get that performer’s permission to make the recording in the first place (aka ‘fixation’), and also to subsequently exploit the various controls that come with the resulting recording copyright.

Then there is the performer equitable remuneration right. This says that, when the performance or communication controls of any sound recording copyright are exploited, all the performers who appear on the recording are due remuneration in addition to the copyright owner – usually at set rates agreed by the wider music industry.

In the UK, PPL manages this right on behalf of all performers. So, when music is played in public or broadcast, PPL collects royalties for performers as well as copyright owners.