When someone “steals” your song, it is most often a matter of copyright infringement. Copyright owners have federal statutory rights as outlined by the United States Copyright Act. In short, copyright owners have exclusive rights in their copyrighted works including the right of reproduction, distribution, public display and performance, and the right to prepare derivative works. This means only the copyright owner, such as a musician or artist, can reproduce, distribute or perform their original music or song. Also, only the copyright owner can create a new work based on their original work (e.g. music sampling). A song is deemed “stolen” when a third party infringes on one or more of these rights. So, now what….. Well, here are the four steps to take if your song has been stolen.
Step 1: Identify the infringing activity
When it comes to copyright infringement, one of the more common types of infringing activity occurs on the Internet. Internet piracy is a rampant and widespread issue in the modern world. It is easier than ever for the general public to find, take, and reproduce the copyrighted content. Simply by taking a screenshot on one’s smart phone, posting a video on YouTube, or downloading music using popular Peer-to-peer sharing services, a person can commit copyright infringement without ever realizing that it is illegal. The real issue is that infinite copies of original copyrighted works can be made with the click of a single button.
When a copyright owner believes their work has been copied or their copyright has been infringed, they should first look to the law and identify which specific right has been infringed. For example, if an artist notices their song has been posted on YouTube by an unauthorized third-party account, they should think to themselves, “This is a copy or reproduction of my work, that has been distributed through digital distribution channels and publicly performed by means of digital transmission.” Therefore, they have identified that all three of these exclusive rights have been infringed.
Step 2: Create a list of any and all possible legal and practical remedies
Once you have identified the issue, it is very important that you know what your goal is. Do you simply want credit for the use of your song? Are you owed money or royalties? Do you disapprove of the specific use? Is your reputation at stake? Do you want to force the third party to stop their activity?
Once you have a clear goal in mind, there are many paths to achieving that goal. Sometimes a simple conversation can fix the issue. For example, Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts offers optional, confidential mediation sessions where artists can confront their adversaries before a neutral third party who helps guide them towards forming a mutually acceptable, self-determined solution. Often, the solution is to draft some kind of licensing agreement including a fee, royalty splits and very clear language regarding ownership. Other times, copyright owners must look move on to Step 3 (below).
Step 3: Find an entertainment attorney and formulate a legal argument
An experienced entertainment attorney can help a copyright owner take effective legal action in order to remedy the problem. First, most entertainment attorneys perform steps 1 and 2(above) in a more careful and organized manner as they begin to structure a strong legal argument. Next, they may educate or notify the third party as to their infringing activity and demand that they stop. Finally, they can file an action in federal court against the infringing party on your behalf.
Look for an attorney with experience in the entertainment industry. These attorneys will have experience with copyright law and intellectual property. They will also have a thorough understanding of the entertainment industry and may be able to help you take any practical preventative measures necessary to protect your content before taking legal action.
Step 4: Spread the word, gather evidence and register your work
Alerting the media may help artists get support from the public as well as their audience, who may be eager to help expose any other infringing activity out of respect for the copyright owner’s art. An artist should also send takedown notices to any third party content hosts who may be providing a platform through which their copyrighted work is being infringed. Additionally, musicians should let their respective performing rights organization know that their work has been infringed and that royalties should be paid exclusively and directly to them.
Finally, despite the fact that an artist automatically obtains a copyright in their work when it is “fixed in a tangible medium,” registering one’s original, creative work with the copyright office has a number of protective benefits and is, in fact, a requirement if an artist is planning on suing for copyright infringement. Registration can serve both as a deterrent for third parties who are considering using your work in an illegal manner and as prima facie evidence of ownership. Furthermore, it may entitle you to statutory damages, as well as legal costs and attorneys’ fees. While the registration process is relatively inexpensive and simple, many artists have their attorneys register their works for them as it can involve some level of confusing legalese.