When it comes to music, figuring out copyright laws can easily make your head spin.
Depending on what you want to do with a song – cover, remix, etc. – you may need to get permission from different individuals. Labels, publishers, and to a lesser extent, artists, take copyright very seriously.
If you think we’re joking then you’ll love to know that it is always technically illegal to remix a song without permission. Yes, even if you only created it for yourself and for your ears only, it’s still illegal.
Will you get caught in this case? Most likely; not a chance in hell, but this should show you how strict the laws are that govern the distribution of music.
A Brief Intro to “Derivative Work”
The first thing you need to know when creating a remix is that you’re creating a product called a derivative work.
A derivative work is based on work that has already been copyrighted. Think of it as a reimagining of a song, or an adaptation of a novel.
This means that you will always need permission to remix someone else’s song.
You’re probably wondering how a song even becomes copyrighted? This happens the second an original work has been created.
Yes, that person can benefit from a registration copyright, but automatic copyright will suffice as an example for our purposes.
So, say you want to remix a song by a local artist who has self-released their song. You will still need permission from them if you remix one of their songs. If you don’t get their permission you will be open to lawsuits.
First Thing’s First: Who Owns the Song?
Getting permission on a local level is pretty straightforward. When you start remixing songs that were released on record labels: it gets tricky.
When remixing, you’re dealing with two forms of copyright on the material – the master copyright and the publishing copyright.
The master copyright covers the actual recording, including the individual tracks that make the song up. This means that the label is almost undoubtedly the owner of the master.
The publishing copyright covers the music and lyrics (anything that can be written on sheet music).
While the artist will usually own the rights to the song or composition, most artists give those rights to organizations called a “performing rights society” like ASCAP.
These organizations collect income and make sure the artist gets paid when their music is played on things like the radio, TV, etc.
Important Note: If you plan to make a video with your remix, you will need a Synchronization License as well.
Who to Contact and Where to Find the Info
The first copyright you should get permission from is whoever owns the master – although labels are much more likely to turn you down than artists.
To find this you can usually just do a simple Google search. Wikipedia usually has the correct info you need for albums that are large enough to be on a label.
ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC are the three major performing rights societies in the United States and they will usually have the info you need for contacting the publishing copyright holder.
You can find the info on their websites – www.ascap.com, www.bmi.com, and www.sesac.com. If you can’t find a song by an artist on one site, that simply may mean they are registered to another society.
Your best bet for easily finding the information, for both the master and publishing copyright, is viewing the album case and artwork (if you have it).
Master copyright info is normally on the back, while the publishing info is often in the booklet.
Making Contact and Getting Paid: The Label, The Songwriter, and You
Contacting a major label may seem daunting, but labels are prepared for such and have divisions who sole purpose are to handle these matters.
If a label agrees to let you remix a song, they will typically send you the stems or individual tracks and pay you a flat rate for all the rights to the remix.
Important Note: You will come across suggestions online that say you should go ahead and remix a song before getting permission, and then send it to the labels. We aren’t comfortable recommending this, but because of a thing called “fair use”, you most likely won’t face negative consequences beyond receiving a “please stop using this song or face a lawsuit” kind of thing. More on fair use later.
A label/artist may also send you the stems/tracks without you even requesting. This usually grants you permission, but it is still in your best interest to have a written agreement and terms negotiated.
This becomes even more important if you plan to use your own music in the remix as you can open yourself up to master royalties when your remix is used by someone else.
An open and clear communication between the three parties involved is crucial if you want to get paid for your remix.
Make sure to talk with the artist who owns the publishing copyright, because your remix can be considered a “new song” and you are now part owner of it.
As mentioned above, if you provided your own material to the remix, you could now be part owner of the master copyright.
However, I wouldn’t get your hopes up because it becomes a royalty distribution nightmare for the labels, and they most likely won’t want to deal with it.
A Note on Fair Use
Before we get into this topic, fair use is a tricky subject.
Some put way too much faith in hoping it protects them when they make bootleg remixes. The fair use doctrine is open to wide interpretation but we doubt you have the kind of money that labels do for lawyers.
Fair use basically allows limited use of copyrighted material, without requesting permission. Parody music fits under this category.
Weird Al, for example, doesn’t need publishing permission to parody a song. He does, however, still request permission from the artist and if they say no, he won’t parody the song.
Fair use is designed to prevent copyrights from stifling innovation and beneficial works to society.
If you claim fair use for a remix it will be checked under multiple terms: how much the copyrighted material is used, the purpose of remix(often your monetary gain), and the possible depreciation your song inflicts on the original work.
Because of the three parties involved when remixing a song released on a label, we are going to stress again that it’s best to document everything and have a clear agreement between all three parties involved.
You don’t want to get caught up in the red tape that comes from one party agreeing to give permission while the other doesn't.
Remember: artists have been using other artists’ songs for ages. Labels and artists are usually beyond prepared to handle it, and even hire people for this exact scenario.
So don’t get discouraged, go make some calls/send emails, and create some tasty tunes.