Many musicians find copyright law a daunting concept, and most articles on legal issues in the music industry will only add to their confusion as they become bogged down in jargon-filled discussion of legislative changes or court precedents. But many budding independent artists in the UK will be asking themselves: Is my music protected under Copyright law? Do I need a Performing Rights Organisation to protect my interests?
The short answer to both these questions is yes, but it is not the end of the world if you haven’t registered yet. Firstly, the UK has no legal registration requirement to obtain copyright protection, as it does for patents and trademarks. The copyright automatically subsists in the relevant work as soon as it meets the legislative criteria below:
- It is written or recorded in a fixed form (i.e. in music notation or on tape);
- It is original in that it has not been copied from another work; and
- The writer is a British citizen or domiciled resident in the UK, or the work was first published in the UK or a country which is party to the Berne Convention.
To enforce these rights, it is important to have a dated copy of the work, which can be used as trustworthy evidence in court. Sending it to yourself by email can be enough to attach a date stamp, but it is safer to either send a copy to yourself in the post (and don’t open it!) or lodge a copy with your bank/solicitor in order to obtain a dated receipt.
However, these forms of evidence do not carry the same weight as registration with a PRO, so if you can afford to do so, it’s the smart thing to do (N.B. read the Basics of Music Licensing in the UK article to learn how these work) If you discover your song was played on the radio or television, it would be a lot easier for a PRO to demand the royalty fees, than it would be for you to bring a costly legal suit against the infringing party.
Note that there is no point to doing any of these things if you are not the actual owner of the copyright, such as if:
- You perform original music publicly but do not have any writing credits.
- You arrange the works of other authors that are already protected by copyright.
But if you are a (co-)author, it will only cost £100 to join PRS and there is no joining fee for PPL. Registering with a collecting society does require you to transfer your rights over to them, so it’s not a decision you can easily reverse and most importantly, read the terms of the contract! (If registering with a recently formed PRO in the UK, you should check its compatibility with the established two. For example, since 2014, PRS members have also been able to register their music with Soundreef).
You alone will be responsible for registering any new pieces of work, then PRS and PPL will pay you royalties each quarter and each year respectively. Society membership doesn’t cost a lot, and joining is not particularly complicated, so if you are worried about missing out on royalty fees, I highly recommend that you sign up to a PRO.