The Basics of Music Law
Authored by LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor, , Attorney at Law

The Basics of Music Law

Entertainment lawyers perform a variety of functions related to the film, television, music, and publishing industries. Attorneys in these industries handle labor disputes, contract negotiations, libel and slander cases, tax filings, and issues related to copyrights and trademarks. Some entertainment attorneys also handle immigration issues for foreign clients engaged in the entertainment business.

Although some states do not have laws that pertain directly to entertainment law, California and New York regulate the field extensively. Music law, a particular type of entertainment law, affords protection to people in the music industry, including employees, and governs the actions of musicians, record producers and record company executives. Many legal issues arise in the entertainment business, including:


Copyrights protect music and other original works of authorship. Registering a copyright for a piece of music allows the composer or songwriter to seek monetary damages and attorneys’ fees from anyone who uses the work in a prohibited or unauthorized manner. Music companies typically manage copyrights for written works, while record labels manage the copyrights for sound recordings.

Once a musician registers for a copyright, it protects the work for 70 years after his or her death. For example, if the composer of a copyrighted piece dies in 2015, the copyright will continue to protect that work until 2085. If the work has multiple composers, copyright protection extends 70 years beyond the death of the longest-living composer.

Copyright infringement is an unfortunate reality for many artists. Musicians are often victims of copyright infringement. However, authors of books are also protected against others using their work in any public display. In fact, many attorneys have made their careers protecting the copyrights of music companies, especially in areas like Nashville, Tennessee (the home of country music).

The laws governing copyrights can be quite complex and are often misunderstood, such as mistaken belief that mailing work to one’s self will constitute copyright protection (also known as the “Poor Man’s Copyright”). There are also many legal defenses to copyright infringement. The Copyright Act of 1976 is one of the most important laws related to music copyrighting. This law distinguishes original works from works made for hire, explains an author’s rights for negotiating the use of his or her music, and discusses the copyrighting of unpublished works. It also determines when copyright protection expires. Anything published before 1923, for example, is now in the public domain and no longer has copyright protection. Additional articles of interest are:

  • What Does Copyright Protect?: This resource from the U.S. Copyright Office explains what a copyright does and does not protect.
  • Copyright Resource Center: The Music Publishers Association of the United States offers a collection of resources related to music copyright in the U.S.
  • Music Library Association Copyright Laws: The Music Copyright Association lists several laws pertaining to music copyright in the U.S. The list includes several revisions of the Copyright Act of 1790.


Music publishing is a broad field that includes developing new music, protecting music, and promoting the value of music. Music publishers help composers by taking care of the business aspects of publishing and allowing the artists to focus on producing new works. Music publishers look for new artists, register new works, produce demo recordings and other promotional materials, grant licenses to reproduce or print music, secure commissions for new artists, monitor the use of music, make royalty payments to artists, and take legal action against those who use music without a license.

Music publishing companies rely on publishing laws to protect their investments in composers and songwriters. If original works of music did not qualify for copyright protection, it would be difficult to prevent others from using these works for profit. Without copyright protection, music publishers would not have the option of seeking damages against those who use original works of music without the proper licenses.

Several laws govern the music publishing industry. These laws cover royalties for public performances, licensing for foreign translations, record deals, foreign monies earned from performances and albums, and print licenses for sheet music. One of the most significant is the Fairness in Music Licensing Act of 1998. This act reduced the number of bar and restaurant owners who had to apply for music licenses to play music during business hours at their establishments. The Copyright Term Extension Act is also significant, as it increased the length of copyright protection for music by 20 years. This law is also called the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. For more information on music publishing please check out:


Business laws play an important role in the music industry. Composers, songwriters, performing artists, music producers, music promoters, and industry executives rely on contracts, licenses, and other legal documents to make their living. Music attorneys help their clients negotiate royalties, review contract terms, negotiate settlements on behalf of their clients, and handle other business matters such as:

Breach of Contract: If one party fails to fulfil their promise, and the other party has fulfilled their obligations under the contract, the other party may sue for money and other damages.

Wrongful Termination: An employee who was improperly fired from their job may sue for money and other damages.

Independent Contractor Issues: Although not afforded the same level of protection as employees, consultants and freelance workers are still entitled to certain rights.

Employment Discrimination: The lawprohibits private persons, organizations or governments from discriminating against people because of race, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, pregnancy and, in some states, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Several business laws govern the music industry. Employment laws exist to protect employees from discrimination and unfair business practices. These laws include:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Prevents employers from refusing to hire or termination employees based on race, color, gender, religion, or national/ethnic origin.

The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009: Prohibits employment discrimination based on age and sex.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act: Requires employers to take a number of steps to prevent workplace accidents and illnesses. This act is especially important for those involved in traveling musical productions, as these performers may be at risk for injuries caused by on-stage accidents.

Tax Laws: Traveling musicians may also take advantage of the tax laws in the United States. If a traveling performer does anything work-related at home, such as repairing costumes or making work-related telephone calls, he or she may be able to claim a home office expense on a tax return.

Recommended Reading

For additional information on the entertainment industry and employment law, see:

How to Find a Music Law Attorney

Entertainment laws are complicated and vary depending on the state. For example, in Memphis, one of the nation’s largest forums for up and coming artists, Memphis lawyers are working hard to protect the rights of those in the music industry.

If you need a music lawyer, allows you to quickly post your case online to intellectual property lawyers in your area. When an attorney expresses interest in your case, LegalMatch will provide you with the full attorney profile, including their background information, fees, and ratings, so you can easily decide which attorney is the best fit for your case. Also check out the Bar Association Directory and Lawyer Referral Services.