What is copyright? – Music industry jargon busting

We’ve all heard of the term “copyright”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, copyright is “the exclusive and assignable legal right, given to the originator for a fixed number of years, to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material.”

Music copyright deals with two main and equally contentious elements: master rights and publishing rights. This is where things can get a little bit murky. 

Let’s break it down!

The Basics

What do “publishing rights” and “master rights” even mean? The former refers to the song’s composition, i.e. the chords, melodies, lyrics and so on, while the latter refers to a specific recording of the song. 

Whoever holds these copyrights can license or sell them to various parties. Therefore, record labels, who largely own the master, exploit the master recording, by creating copies to sell or stream, while publishers, who own the publishing rights, exploit the compositional copyrights by, for example, giving the same song to multiple artists to re-record it as a cover.

Taking all of this into consideration, a musical copyright holder has four main rights. These are:

1. The right to reproduce the copyrighted work. This means putting the work on CD, vinyl, digital format etc.

2. The right to distribute copies of the work to the public – enabling the copyright owner to sell those CDs, records or MP3s, or put the work on streaming services. 

3. The right to perform the work publicly. It’s important to note that the term “performance” doesn’t simply mean a live gig or a DJ set, but any time the work is played in a public space, e.g. radio plays, background music in a hip cafe as well as (believe it or not) streaming. 

4. The right to create derivative works based on the copyrighted work, or allow others to do so. A derivative work could be a sample of Song A that’s used as the basis of Song B (think of the infamous MC Hammer Tune “U Can’t Touch This”, which samples Rick James’ Super Freak”) or a song that’s used in a Netflix series or advert – referred to as “sync”. 

Things might seem fairly simple and straightforward, but can quickly become a complicated affair, especially when multiple collaborators are involved. Each collaborator needs to be compensated, and their permission needs to be sought out when syncing or sampling opportunities come up. 

Catalogue, Composition & Master

We often get asked, “What are the different types of copyrights that you can generate as a musician?”

Depending on whether or not you’re signed to a label/publisher, you should own a copyright on your full catalogue, your masters and your compositions. 

Let’s break these terms down even further.

Catalogue: Simply put, this is your collection of songs. You as the owner should own the copyrights of the catalogued musical compositions. Some artists sell their song catalogue as a quasi-stock for companies to invest in.

In the mid-1960s, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, alongside their manager Brian Epstein and publishers Dick James and Charles Silver formed the company “Northern Songs”. They assigned the copyrights of the Beatles catalogue to Northern Songs. In 1969, the Lennon-McCartney duo sold their interests in Northern Song to ATV Music for £3.5 million. 

In 1985, Michael Jackson purchased the publishing rights of a catalogue of 251 Beatles Songs from ATV Music, for a total of $47 million. 

Composition: The Composition primarily refers to a song’s melody and lyrics, and other elements which make a song unique. The copyright of the composition is usually owned by the songwriters themselves, who assign a song’s copyright to a publisher so that the latter handles the business side of things. 

Master: The Master refers to a specific, recorded copy of the composition. If the artist is signed to a label, this typically belongs to the label that financed the recording. 

An interesting, real-life example that illustrates all of the industry terms that we have mentioned in this article is the 2020 case that saw Taylor Swift going head to head with Scooter Braun over her masters. 

It all started in 2004, when Swift, a young singer-songwriter, handed the masters of her future six albums to the label Big Machine in return for a cash advance. In 2019, Braun bought Big Machine, and with it, the now-lucrative masters of one of the world’s most famous pop stars. To add insult to injury, Braun sold Swift’s masters to an investment fund for a reported $300 million.

Swift launched a public campaign against Braun. Luckily, the fact that she still owns the publishing rights led her to start re-recording her compositions to essentially become a free agent. 

Final notes

It’s important to note that there isn’t one, global copyright law. While the Berne Convention has led to some cross-country similarities, the copyright-terms and durations vary from state to state.


Janelle knows a thing or two about the music industry. Having been involved in the industry since the age of 13, she's now involved in a variety of music-related projects and is always keen to share industry tips 'n' tricks with fellow musicians.