In a flash:
- If you wrote it, you own it. Unless you specifically surrendered that right.
- You can keep your work in a box under the bed or you can register with MACP.
- You need to acquire licence for public performances.
- Cover versions are covered under copyrights too.
Click here for the downloadable pdf version of Rockstar Manual – Understanding Your Copyright.
What is copyright?
You wake up one night and a song is playing in your head and just won’t go away. So you grab your guitar and hastily write the tabs and the lyrics on a piece of napkin. Ten years from now, will that napkin serve as proof that you own the copyright of the song?
Well, yes. Copyright exists from the moment of inception. The minute you write it, you own it. In its most basic explanation, copyrights means that you, as the originator of the work, retain exclusive right of that work for a certain period of time, and it includes its adaptation, publication, distribution etc. Other people cannot simply take that work and do whatever they please with it – they are required to get your consent, and in most cases, pay you a certain sum of money. Even after they pay you, you still retain the copyright, so that the next time they use it, they have to pay you again. Basically that is how musicians earn royalties from radio stations – every time they play your song, they are required to pay you coz they are using your work. In Malaysia, copyright is covered under Copyright Act 1987 (Malaysia).
Unlike the Mahsuri curse, you don’t enjoy this exclusivity for 7 generations. After a certain period of time (which varies from country to country), your copyright dissolves, in which case your work will be entered into public domain. When your work enters public domain, it means anyone could use the work freely without your consent. When will this happen? It varies, but generally for published or broadcasted work in Malaysia, it is up to 50 years after your death. For joint-authorship, it would be 50 years after whoever dies last. To protect your rights when it enters public domain, you can look at trademarking or patenting your work. I don’t cover trademark and patent in this article so please get that info elsewhere.
What is covered under copyright?
Copyright may apply to a wide range of creative, intellectual, scientific, or artistic forms, or “works”. Specifics vary by jurisdiction, but these can include poems, theses, plays, other literary works, movies, dances, musical compositions, audio recordings, paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, software, radio and television and broadcasts.
Copyright does not cover ideas or information. For example, no one can claim copyright to rock n’roll. But you can claim copyright to the song that you write in the rock n’roll genre. Another simple example is this – a mouse is not a copyright, Mickey Mouse is.
Who owns what?
- If you create the work, you own the copyright;
- If you create the work as part of your duties at work, your employer owns the copyright;
- If you create the work as a commission – meaning someone hires and pays you to do it – and there is nothing in the contract that covers copyright matters, then the copyright belongs to you UNLESS you specifically assign the right to the person who commission the work. That is why if you write a jingle for Company A, the contract will say very clearly that you assign the copyright of that jingle to Company A. After they pay you your pound of gold, you will have no more claims to that jingle even if they play it 19,999 times on the television.
Pay attention to item 3. This is one of the biggest and most common mistakes that musicians do. Because they did not read (or did not understand) the fine print in the contract, most local musicians inadvertently surrender their copyrights to the record label. Or, they simply don’t understand the difference between surrendering their copyrights and hiring a music publisher to represent them. So, read your contract carefully. If you don’t understand it, ask for clarification. It is a worthwhile investment to have a lawyer (or someone who understands legal jargons) to look at the contract and explain to you what you are getting into. Lawyer fees range between RM1,000 – RM5,000 depending on the complexity and time spent. You may say that is a lot of money to pay for a couple of hours’ work but trust me it worth every sen.
How do you prove that copyright belongs to you?
When you create the work, always date it and write down your name as its originator. Then, throw that notebook in a box and keep it under your bed. Or save it in your laptop. There is nothing else that you need to do. Not satisfied with that?
Well, you can also do the old school way. You can put that work in an envelope and post it to yourself. When you receive that mail, DO NOT open it. Throw that envelope in a box and keep it under your bed.
Or, you can do it the smart way and register your work with Music Authors’ Copyright Protection Berhad (MACP). There is a lot of misconception and fear concerning MACP’s role. A lot of people (still) think MACP is out there to weasel people’s money. This is not true. There are conditions to become a member of MACP so go here l to find out what are the documents that you need to submit together with the application. Or, you can just go here for the online form, or here for the Word form.
What is MACP?
Basically MACP is part of a global copyright protection coalition that monitors and collects royalty payments on behalf of authors whenever your work is being used or played in some radio station in Djibouti (yes that is a real country, look it up).
The reason for MACP to exist is simple, it is physically impossible to track individual authors to pay them royalty especially if the author comes from a foreign country 10,000 miles away. So, authors collectively register with a central organization like MACP in Malaysia who will act as your representative and collection point for these royalty payments. MACP pays royalties once a year. If you are represented by a publishing company, MACP pays your publisher and it is your publisher’s responsibility to pay you these monies. I will cover this further in the section UNDERSTANDING YOUR CONTRACT.
How does it work? Technically, whenever there is a public performance, such as shows in shopping malls, clubs, TV or radio, the organizer is required to apply for a licence from MACP. The cost for this licence depends on what sort of performance and the number of people attending. As an example, if you do a fashion show at KLCC (which falls under “Casual Performance with DJ or Compere”) the licence fee is RM300 a day. If you organize your company’s annual dinner, the minimum licence fee is RM400 per event. If you own an airplane, the licence fee starts at RM40 per 500 passengers per hour. The list of fees can be found here, but please note that these are minimum rates and MACP will advise you on how much you need to pay when you apply for the licence.
As the organizer, after you apply and pay the licencing fee, MACP will issue you a printed licence which you need to display at your premises (if you are a DJ, then keep it in your files and bring it to the event). They will also require you to fill up a form after the event is over for you to list down the songs that you used. At the end of the year, MACP will distribute these fees that they have collected (minus their administrative fees) to the authors. You will get a statement and a cheque. Yes, MACP also collects payments from radio and TV stations, including foreign ones. MACP routinely sends their officers to shopping malls, entertainment outlets etc to check whether organizers have paid their licencing fees so yes there is enforcement though admittedly MACP will not be able to monitor everything everywhere at all times.
To pay or not to pay?
What happens if you do a gig? The organizer is responsible to pay for the fee, not you.
What if you organize the gig? Well, there are a few questions that you need to answer here:
- Is it part of an on-going gig at a particular venue? For instance, if Cafe A features live music performance every Wednesday night and you happen to organize your gig during one of those nights as part of the series, then the licence is covered under Cafe A’s “Live & Featured/Mechanical Music” licence. Cafe A will be responsible to get and pay for the licence and to submit to MACP the list of songs played.
If it is a one-off gig, then you need to answer these questions:
- Are you playing 100% your own original works which copyright you own? If yes then you don’t have to get an MACP licence. Those songs are yours so you can do whatever you want with them, which includes performing them publicly. But it is always a smart idea to check if the venue has its own “Live & Featured/Mechanical Music” licence, which applies for pubs, bistros, restaurants and cafes etc.
- If you are playing a mix of yours and other people’s songs then yes, you need to pay a licencing fee. By playing other people’s music, you are performing copyrighted works and the authors of that work deserve to get compensated for it.
Summary: if your band is organizing a gig (irrespective if it is a paying or free gig) and you sing only your songs, you don’t need to pay MACP a licence fee. If as part of your setlist you sing something by Mr Big or Sting or Ijah Amran then yes, you need to pay the fee.
Recording cover versions
Cover versions work in the same way. If you want to re-record Umbrella by Rihanna and sell that CD, you need to get in touch with MACP and they will advise you how much you need to pay in order to do the cover. You don’t have to get in touch with Jay Z, MACP will be the middle man. The fee will be calculated based on, in some cases these fees can be negotiated further:
- How many recordings will you make?
- Manufactured in what country?
- Distributed in what country?
- Which type of organization do you represent?
An actual example: a cover version of Billy Joel’s song costs Clever Joe USD85 as payment for sum of advance royalties paid on 1,000 units of CDs. The agreement between Clever Joe and Billy Joel’s publisher includes the exact wording for the “publisher/writer credit” needed to be included in the CD’s liner notes, and it was stipulated that the publisher must receive two copies of the disc “as released.” (Individual writer/publisher credits for every song you cover need to be included in your CD’s liner notes, by the way.) Upon execution of the agreement, Billy Joel’s publisher granted Clever Joe the license and sent him a hard copy for his records.
For more articles go to Rockstar Manual.