"Music Licensing 101: Copyright of Master vs. Copyright of Composition" text over typewriter & page with the text "Copyright Claim"

Are you a composer and want to learn how to protect your music, and even make money off it? Are you unfamiliar with or interested in music copyright? We’ll teach you how your master copyright and composition copyright differ, and how this affects your licenses.

How does Music Copyright Work?

When you create any work of art, like a painting, song, audio file, novel, film, you name it, you simultaneously create rights over your work. These rights are your ownership over your original creation. We call this intellectual property, or IP.

When you record an original song, you actually create two copyrights. The first is the copyright of the composition, which covers the lyrics, melodies, and chord progressions of your song.

The second copyright created is the copyright of the sound recording, the audio file itself that contains the aural realization of your composition. We call this the master-use copyright, or sound recording copyright.

The two different copyrights allow for different music licenses, depending on how another creative intends to use the song. We’ll delve into that, later.

How do the Master Copyright and Musical Composition Copyright differ?

The rights of the composition are created, as you guessed it, upon composition, as long as the composition has been stored on any physical medium such as sheet music, a hard drive or any digital medium for that matter. As the name would suggest, these rights belong to the composer(s) and/or lyricist(s) who penned the song. In short, the composer(s) normally reserve all rights to this copyright.

The master copyright (aka master) usually is owned by whoever funded the recording. In most cases, the sound recording rights would be reserved by the record label, as they payed for the artist’s recording session.

However, unsigned artists and indie acts who record themselves would own their own masters upon recording. If you record a short guitar melody or rap on your phone, then you own a master recording (and a composition copyright).

Wait, what? How could that be?

Well, as we said before, the master contains the aural realization of the composition; melody and lyrics as they’re intended to be performed. Therefore, the individual master intrinsically holds two copyrights: the master copyright, and the musical composition copyright, however they can be owned by two different parties.

How does licensing the master differ from licensing the composition?

If someone wanted to record a cover of your song, they would need a license to use the music and lyrics – the musical composition. Mechanical licenses (in the US) are used to license other artists the right to use the musical composition in creating a cover recording.

If someone wished to use your specific recording, the master of the composition in a video, film, or podcast, this borrowing would need a synchronization license (aka sync license). To use any copyrighted sound recording in an audiovisual format (i.e., scoring / music placement) requires a sync license. Similarly, master licenses are given out by the owner of the master (usually a label) to artists who wish to use the master recording in visual projects. However, to use the entire master in a project, one would need both the master license and the sync license.

Why does everybody want to own their masters?

Masters generate a large amount of revenue from streaming and record sales. Only artists (in most cases) retain the rights to the musical composition copyright, so record labels go after master copyrights. Because the master is so lucrative, artists (who are familiar with copyright law) work to gain control back of their masters over time.

You may remember the famous feud between Taylor Swift and Scooter Braun, who sold the sound recording rights of her first six records in 2019. Since 2020, Taylor has begun re-recording her early albums, having released Fearless (Taylor’s Version) and Red (Taylor’s Version) in 2021. Through re-recording, Taylor now owns the master copyrights to these newer versions of previously released songs. As a result, she is generating revenue based on record sales and streams of those albums.

Oftentimes, artists who work with publishers will give up their rights to the master and publisher’s share. The publishers make some profit in exchange for marketing the artist’s music to a wider audience.

Here at Soundscape, we offer deals to composers that protect both their master copyrights and musical composition copyrights. This provides a great advantage to composers, as they only have to make one deal, and protect the artist’s rights. We believe the artist always comes first.

Click here to submit your music to Soundscape. If you’re looking to use premium production music in a project, Soundscape boasts a curated library of over 20,000 tracks. Click here to sign up for a free account, and click here to get 25% off on all Soundscape subscriptions!

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