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, and music industries. Attorneys in these industries handle labor disputes, contract negotiations, libel and slander cases, tax issues, and issues related to copyrights and trademarks. Some entertainment attorneys also handle immigration law issues for foreign clients. Some states do not have laws that pertain directly to entertainment law, but California and New York regulate the field extensively. One particular type of entertainment law, music law, protects people in the music industry and governs the actions of musicians, record producers, record company executives, and other people in the field.


Copyrights protect music and other original works of authorship. Registering a copyright for a piece of music allows the composer or songwriter to seek statutory 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 date of death. 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. 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for hire, explains an author’s rights for negotiating the use of his or her music, and discusses the copyrighting of unpublished works.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.


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.


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

The following resources provide detailed information about the legal aspects of the music industry.