The rights stuff – how to protect your compositions
By Duncan McCrone, Scottish manager of the MCPS.
What exactly is copyright? Well, the answer is in the word itself. It is a right, or rather a series of rights, in original literary, dramatic, artistic or musical works, which allows the owner of such works to keep control over their use when (in the case of musical works’, which this article will deal exclusively with) they are recorded, copied, performed, broadcast, adapted or arranged.
These rights are enshrined in law, the current UK legislation being the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All very legal and official sounding, but let’s put things in perspective from the viewpoint of a composer of pipe tunes.
The first owner of the copyright in a musical work is always the original composer, but it is important to point out that copyright only exists from the moment it is ‘recorded in some fixed form’, that is to say, either written out in manuscript or recorded onto tape or some other media. It has been known for a composer to perform a song in public, only for an unscrupulous member of the audience to quietly record it and claim ownership afterwards, some years ago, a rock band working on new material in a recording studio in the south of England were shocked when the when the sound engineer, who had recorded the ideas as they emerged, claimed to have written the songs, having made the first recording. The band was unable to prove otherwise!
Once you’ve written out or recorded the tune, you are confirmed as the copyright owner. So far so good, but you must be able to prove it. Anyone can produce a tape or manuscript. so you must be able to show that you knew of the work’s existence before anyone else. You can do this in a number ways, such as having the manuscript signed and dated by a bank manager or solicitor, register the work with an independent copyright registry or send a copy of the manuscript or tape in a Registered envelope to yourself, which you keep unopened. These precautions, while not proving ownership, at least confirm the existence of copyright on a certain date, and no musical works should be communicated to any third party until at least one has been taken.
Copyright will last for 70 years after the end of the year in which you die, at which time it will pass into the public domain. Many of the best-known pipe tunes and traditional songs or instrumentals are ‘out of copyright’. However, any arrangement made of such a tune will become a fresh copyright belonging to that arranger, and will enjoy all the rights of a new composition. ‘Arrangement’ will assume some kind of creative input, and not just be the tune played straight from original manuscript.
You may wish to keep ownership of the tune or the arrangement yourself, or you may assign it to a music publisher. By this, I mean a person or company who will own the copyright in your work, but will use all their best endeavours to make sure the work is commercially exploited, and will collect all income from its use and share it with you on an agreed basis.
I’m not referring to a publisher of manuscript, who may issue books including your tune, with your agreement, but might not necessarily take an assignment of copyright. You can have your tune published in a book and still hold the copyright yourself.
The copyright owner in your tune, whether it is you or your publisher, has the exclusive right to do certain things with it. He/she also has the right to permit others to do any of these ‘restricted’ acts, which are contained within the current legislation and include the right to:
- Perform the work in public
- Broadcast it, or include it in a cable service
- Make copies of the work
Any person wanting to do any of the above must get prior permission from the copyright owners, or their agents. Failure to do so constitutes an infringement of copyright, and can result in legal action leading to claims for damages and legal costs.
You, the composer and copyright owner, might live on a remote island, and someone in on the other side of the world might want to record one of your tunes on an album for US release. How do they find you to get permission?
Similarly, a pub might want to play background music all day and include your tune along with hundreds of others. Will they have to contact all the composers, or their publishers? Of course not. It is impractical for copyright owners to deal directly with all users of their catalogue.
This is where the collecting societies come into play, the Performing Right Society Ltd (PRS) for the issue of licences of those wishing to perform or broadcast the works (the Performing Right), and the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) for the right to make copies of the works (the Mechanical Right).
The PRS is a membership organisation which collects licence fees from users of performed music — for example broadcasters, event promoters, pubs, clubs, shops, factories — and distributes the money as royalties to the creators and publishers. It licenses all types of music, both in the UK and around the world as a result of reciprocal agreements with overseas societies.
MCPS is a membership-based organisation that acts on behalf of its composer and publisher members to ensure that they are commercially rewarded whenever their music is recorded. It negotiates agreements with anyone wanting to record music, collects the mechanical royalties and distributes them to the correct copyright owner. In other words, it acts as a ‘clearing house’ for its members’ music, and allows the users of music (the record companies, TV, radio, ﬁlm and video producers, background music suppliers etc.) to use one central facility for obtaining the necessary licences while making sure that the owners (the composers and publishers) are properly recompensed for the use of their music. Membership is only relevant if a prospective member has, or imminently expects to have, works recorded in some commercial form — in other words, if there are mechanical royalties for MCPS to collect. A commission is deducted before the balance of royalties is paid, which is how MCPS covers its operating costs. As with PRS, the MCPS has reciprocal agreements with overseas societies to allow it to issue licences on a worldwide basis.
This article first appeared in the August 2002 Piping Times. No material from the Piping Times may be reproduced without the permission of the Editor.