Recording Tips

Music Copyright UK

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Music copyright law is important for every singer and musician who want to know how to copyright a song. We will cover everything you need to know about music copyright in the UK, licensing and copyrighting a song and how the law affects singers, musicians and other creators.

UK music copyright law protects the literary and musical intellectual property of songwriters and recording artists. The Copyright, Design & Patents Act 1988 means you own and control the rights to your work, which last your lifetime and 70 years after death.

Learning the law around music copyright can be daunting but we will try to keep it simple. Before you think about signing your rights away to a publisher or record label, find out what copyright means if you’re a singer or musician in the UK.

What does music copyright mean?

Music copyright is part of a wider UK copyright law. Copyright protects creators from the unfair exploitation of their work. It also allows songwriters to make money from their music. In its most basic sense, music copyright means the exclusive right to reproduce the two separate rights related to music.

The first of these rights is the right to the song or musical composition, also known as the publishing copyright. Songwriters who have either written the composition or the lyrics will get the copyright to the song attributed to them. It is worth noting that if one songwriter writes the composition and another writes lyrics, they all share the rights to both parts of the song.

In the UK, copyright is created when music is manifested in a tangible form. This means you create the publishing right when you notate the chords and melody or write down the lyrics. Recording the song also creates a copyright. However, this also creates another music copyright for the sound recording.

Music copyright law UK

music copyright uk law

Under UK law, music falls under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988. It states that copyright is a property right and is attributed to original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works. It also covers sound recordings, films or broadcasts.

Importantly, amongst other rights, the copyright owner has the exclusive right to copy the work. They can also issue copies of the work or rent or lend it to the public. Copyright does not subsist in a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work until it is recorded, in writing or otherwise according to the law.

This is a short snippet of a massive set of laws. However, it is enough to cover basic music copyright for now. The key point is that it separates the copyright for the musical composition from the copyright of the sound recording.

How to copyright a song UK

The good news is that in the UK, copyrighting a song is automatic once the song is tangible, so either written down or recorded. However, this doesn’t mean you’ll start earning royalties. You will need to join collection societies in order to start capitalising on your copyright.

If you want to know how to copyright a song, here are some things to do with your music.

  • Write down the song lyrics
  • Write down the song chords and melody
  • Record a demo
  • Record a music video
  • Upload a copy of your recording privately to Soundcloud, YouTube, etc
  • Register with a collection society

Sound recording copyright UK

Music copyright includes the right to the song and the right to the recording, known as the master copyright. The master is the final version of a recording. All CDs, vinyl records or digital versions of this master are copies made with a license to copy the master.

A single song has the potential to be made into multiple different recordings. This creates different copyrights for each master of the recording. First, permission from the owner of the publishing needs to be given. The right to reproduce a song in a sound recording is known as the mechanical license and a recording can’t be created for commercial purposes without this right.

Of course, if you own the publishing then you have nothing to worry about when recording your song. However, if another recording artist likes your song, they wouldn’t be able to make a recording of it without obtaining a mechanical license from you.

Having these two separate rights means that one songwriter can license their song to multiple recording artists. It also means that the songwriter will receive royalties for each sale or performance of the song, whether live or through the broadcast of the recording. The songwriter won’t receive any royalties attributed to the master copyright of the sound recording.

Music copyright length under UK copyright law

According to UK copyright law, literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works last 70 years after the author’s death, or 70 years after the creation if the author is unknown. This is applicable to songs and songwriter but not owners of master recording rights.

Master recording rights are valid for 50 years after creation. However, when the work is released, it is then 70 years after the end of the year it was released. Many classic albums get remastered and released again. They are considered a new master recording and therefore, the copyright of that specific master will last 70 years after it was released.

PRS for Music Publishing Royalties

PRS for Music UK

PRS, Performing Rights Society, is a collection society for songwriters in the UK. They are responsible for collecting royalties generated by copyrighted music. Your song generates royalties from public performances. PRS distributes these royalties to you but will have to sign up with PRS and register your songs for this to happen.

Once you sign up to PRS, they will pay the owner of the publishing the royalties they collect from venues, radio stations etc. If you keep your publishing rights, they will pay you directly. If you sign away your publishing rights to a publisher, you will receive a cut based on your agreement.

MCPS & PPL Sound Recording Royalties

MCPS, Mechanical Copyright Protection Society, also pays royalties to writers but is responsible for royalties from mechanical licenses. You will receive royalties if your song has been licensed for a recording and if that recording is commercially released or broadcast. Joining PRS for Music includes both PRS and MCPS.

PPL, Phonographic Performance Limited, will pay royalties to the owner of the sound record recording master copyright. They will pay artists or record labels who own the master rights a royalty whenever a sound recording is performed. SO basically the PRS for recordings.

This means that PRS will pay the owner of the publishing copyright royalties for the performance of the song when it is recorded and played on the radio. MCPS will pay the publishing owner royalties for the mechanical license to record the song and PPL will pay a royalty to the owner of the master copyright for the performance of the recording.

Can I use 10 seconds of a copyrighted song?

music copyright master uk

You can not use 10 seconds of copyrighted music, or 100 seconds, or even 1 second without a license. Using any duration of a sound recording, no matter how long, will constitute an infringement unless you have permission.

Remember, the owner of the recording had to license the song from the owner of the publishing. This means that a master recording copyright infringement also infringes on the rights of the publishing owner. Therefore, you need to acquire licenses for both the master and publishing.

YouTubers who want to use music in their video commonly ask this but often get away with using music in their videos. However, due to new copyright legislation and improvements YouTube’s Content ID, this isn’t as easy as it used to be.

YouTube music copyright

YouTube has its own music policy directory that states which songs have their use restricted. YouTube’s directory explains what happens if you do decide to use copyrighted songs. Whilst some songs aren’t available for YouTube use, some will automatically mean that ads will appear on your video, with the revenue going to the rights holder.

YouTube content ID

YouTube is able to see if you use copyrighted music in your video through its Content ID system. YouTube’s Content ID automatically scans videos for copyrighted material by comparing the video and audio to files registered by rights holders. If your video has copyrighted material in it then that will flag up a Content ID claim, which will enable the rights holders to decide whether it’s used or not.

Can YouTubers use music in their video?


YouTubers can use music in their videos provided it hasn’t been blocked by YouTube’s music policy directory. The most likely situation is that ads will appear in your video unless YouTube notifies that the song isn’t available for use. If the music isn’t in the directory or is blocked, you will be responsible for negotiating your own license.

However, you should be able to use music under certain circumstances if the use of copyright falls into fair use.

What is fair use copyright UK?

Exceptions to copyrighted works fall under the term fair use. The UK defines this as fair dealing. This can include using copyrighted works for the purposes of:

  • Parody
  • Research
  • Teaching
  • Private study
  • Criticism or review
  • News reporting

The key issues surrounding fair dealing in the UK is whether the use of copyright caused a loss of income or was inappropriate. For example, it is an infringement if someone didn’t buy or stream a song because of a work claiming fair use or using than what was needed.

Some of these practices require sufficient acknowledgement of the creator to constitute fair use. Many YouTubers feel they can acknowledge artists they use in their videos and claim fair use. However, it is more likely for a video to be flagged and taken down. Even videos that fall under fair use purposes can be flagged because content filers can struggle to define whether a video falls under fair use.

What is a sync license?

music copyright sync

Sync licensing is a legal agreement between two parties a music rights owner and someone who is looking to synchronise music to another form of media. This is typically for film, television and advertising but it can also be for video games, apps or any other placement of music alongside another form of intellectual property.

A publisher can guarantee the rights to use the song with a sync license. This means that the party using the song can then either license an existing recording or commission their own recording of that song.

It is worth remembering that you shouldn’t license a recording without the song. Getting a sync license for a recording of a song gives no guarantee that the license for the song can be acquired. Therefore, you won’t be able to use a recording that you’ve paid a license for.


Music copyright myths

#1 Music copyright is the same across countries

music copyright across the world

Music copyright law differs across countries. Countries tend to establish their own laws regarding copyright and this can affect the ways creators make and license intellectual property.

In the United States, copyright protects original works in a tangible form across literary, musical and dramatic works. This is very similar to UK copyright law. Copyright is automatically created when the work is in a tangible form, also like the UK. However, unlike the UK, any work published before 1923 falls under the public domain in the USA.

#2 Copyright is a problem

Getting licenses can be a nuisance. There are those who want copyright laws to be abolished and believe that everything should be in the public domain. This is because they believe copyright is restrictive and inhibits creative freedom. However, it is important to remember the core purposes of copyright.

  • Encourage the development of culture, science and innovation
  • Provide a financial benefit to copyright holders for their works
  • Facilitate access to knowledge and entertainment for the public.

Our creative and cultural industries exist because of copyright and it shouldn’t be viewed as a problem. It also offers a way for creators across many disciplines to make a living.

#3 Copyright protects ideas

Copyright won’t protect your ideas if they stay in your head. There is no way to prove you’ve created an idea if it hasn’t been expressed in a tangible form. This is why you need to write your works down, timestamp them or register them with a publisher or collection society.

Have you copyrighted your music? Share your songs in the comments below.