The music industry relies on royalties generated by the licensing of copyrighted songs and recordings as a primary form of payment for musicians. Intellectual property law and licensing systems have gone through significant adjustments over recent years as a result of the rise of digital music, but much of the industry’s historic legal framework remains.
To start thinking about music in legal terms, it’s important to realize that there are two types of musicians: songwriters and performing artists. These hold two distinct copyrights: songwriters hold the rights to the lyrics and melody of a piece of music, while performing artists hold the rights to a particular recording of a song, which is called a master recording. Songwriters may only seek copyright for a full song, and cannot divide lyrics and melody into separate rights.
Both songwriters and recording artists typically assign their rights to a third party for management, instead of attempting to track a song’s use and seek payment independently. Song copyrights are typically assigned to music publishers, while master recording copyrights are typically assigned to a record label.