Third edition of USA copyright office compendium – musical works

For purposes of copyright registration (draft), musical works (which are also known as musical compositions) are original works of authorship consisting of music and any accompanying words. Music is a succession of pitches or rhythms, or both, usually in some definite pattern.

A dramatic musical work is a musical work created for use in a motion picture or a dramatic work, including musical plays and operas. By contrast, a nondramatic musical work is a musical work that was not created for use in a motion picture or a dramatic work, such as a ballad intended for distribution solely on an album or an advertising jingle intended solely for performance on the radio.

A musical work and a sound recording of that musical composition are separate works. The copyright in a musical work covers the music (and lyrics, if any) embodied in the musical composition itself, but does not cover a particular recording of that composition (or vice versa). The Office’s registration specialists examine musical works for copyrightable authorship.

The main elements of copyrightable musical work authorship include melody, rhythm, harmony, and lyrics, if any. Melody is a linear succession of pitches. Rhythm is the linear succession of durational sounds and silences. Harmony is the vertical and horizontal combination of pitches resulting in chords and chord progressions. Lyrics are a set of words, sometimes grouped into verses and/or choruses, that are intended to be accompanied by music. Lyrics may consist of conventional words or non-syntactical words or syllables, and may be spoken or sung.

To be copyrightable, musical works must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression.  Musical works may be embodied either in copies or phonorecords. Improvised works are not registrable unless they are fixed in tangible form, such as in a transcribed copy, a phonorecord, or an audiovisual recording. A registration for an improvised musical work will extend only to the material that has been submitted to the Office.

Musical works fixed in copies include their embodiment in both hard copy and electronic formats. Standard musical notation, using the five-line, four-space staff, is the form of notation often employed to embody musical works. Precision equal to that offered by standard notation is not required for registration, although the deposit should constitute as precise a representation of the work as possible. A graphic representation or textual description of pitch, rhythm, or both may suffice as long as the notation is sufficiently precise.

Copies of musical works include the following:

  • Hard copy formats, including but not limited to sheet music and lead sheets.
  • Non-audio digital files, including text files (e.g., .pdf or Microsoft Word) or files created by music notation software embodied in compact discs, flash drives, hard drives, and other digital file storage devices.
  • Music accompanying a motion picture or other audiovisual work (as fixed in the audiovisual work).
  • A non-audio digital file (e.g., digital notation) that is uploaded to the Office’s server in support of an online application.

Phonorecords of musical works include the following:

  • Hard copy formats embodying recorded sound, including but not limited to compact discs, vinyl records, and tapes.
  • Digital audio files embodying recorded sound, including .wav, .mp3, .wma (uploaded or embodied in compact discs, flash drives, and other digital file storage devices). A digital audio file that is uploaded to the Office’s server in support of an electronic registration application is a phonorecord for registration purposes.

Where music is first published in a motion picture soundtrack, the motion picture is considered a copy of the musical work.