A Brief Discussion on Intellectual Property for Music Creatives

Remember the Robin Thicke "Blurred Lines" lawsuit from the Marvin Gaye estate, Beyonce's "Formation" video issue, and the trademarking of Blue Ivy's name? All of these things have one thing in common: IP, or intellectual property. Don't know what that really entails? That's where this post comes in. I'd like to briefly share what intellectual property is, the differences between two of the major protections for music creatives, and why it is important as a creative to be mindful of them as they create. 


A Brief Definition of Intellectual Property

Intellectual Property, in the simplest of definitions, is the protection of people's works, particularly creatives, businesses, and inventors. There are three specific types of intellectual property that are discussed the most: copyright, trademark, and patent (physical inventions). I'll discuss the first two in more depth because they apply the most to music creatives.


The most important intellectual property protection a music creative should have is copyright protection, which protects the sound and written work of creatives for the lifetime of the copyright owner plus seventy (70) years after the owner's death (or in the case of a group of owners, the passing of the last owner plus 70 years after their passing). This includes sound and video recordings, books, songs, poetry and more. It's one of the most valuable things that a creative has possession of, especially if they are distributing music. As I mentioned before, filing for copyright protection is something that many creatives should do in case of infringement (someone using your work without your permission) and as proof of ownership. It's somewhat easy to figure out and apply for, as well as inexpensive, so it's something that I'd suggest a creative to look into. This is only best if you didn't sample a song or did sample a song and have the permission from the copyright owner of the original track via a license. If you're interested in applying and have questions or concerns, please make sure to ask for the help of an attorney.


Trademark protection, which is the protection of a word, phrase or design. Logos and brand names, anyone? For creatives that use logos for their albums and creatives that sell merchandise, this is important for you. Trademark infringement happens when there are people that file trademark protection and they can be easily mistaken with another in a few ways: by the pronunciation of the trademark, the design, and by having the word or phrase in a different language (or in a word or words that may mean the same thing). There are many different ways that a logo or name couldn't be approved for trademark protection. To read more, check out this PDF from the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) on the basic facts on filing trademark protection. If you still have questions, consult a lawyer.

Why Are These Important? 

Understanding intellectual property is a major key for music creatives to know about in order to keep their art protected, especially from people using it without their permission, and to make money from their work in its original form and in its altered form. A lot of creatives don't like to get into the legal aspects of the music industry, but in order to make informed decisions about their rights, their creativity, and the distribution of their work, creatives should take some time out to learn a little more about intellectual property, especially copyright.

As I mentioned earlier, copyright is the most important thing you can own as a creative. Why is that? Because of publishing. Publishing is one of the, if not the main, ways that you receive your payment for your music recordings. Usually, publishing goes through the person or company that owns the music. So, if you don't own your copyright and publishing as a creative, you can't really control how much money you receive personally as an artist for your recordings and writing, which is something that often plagues black creatives today (ex: Lil Yachty, who didn't know who controlled his publishing). That's why you see older artists performing often (because they don't control their publishing or copyright – it is owned usually by the record label). You may also have an issue defending your ownership in court without copyright protection, in case someone uses your work without your permission. Read this informative article about publishing and copyright over on Tunecore.

If you need help or assistance in figuring out how to protect your music, please consult with an attorney. For those who can't afford to hire an attorney, there are pro bono intellectual property attorneys in your area that work specifically with creatives that don't make much money. Seek their assistance by checking out this list of organizations* and control your music rights. Don't say I didn't warn you.

*for Maryland folks, check out the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (MDVLA). If there are some in your area that aren't listed in the link above, leave a comment below!