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Music copyright: who owns a melody?

From, last update on: May 19, 2021

A catchy tune can be quick worth several million euros be. It runs on all radio stations, is used in advertising, in TV recorders and is sold as CD or Mp3. So that an author of these types of exploitation too financially benefits and at the same time can still determine what happens to his work, copyright also applies to music.

Music copyright FAQ

How can self-composed songs be protected by copyright?

You don't have to do anything. German copyright law automatically protects music or sheet music and lyrics.

When does copyright apply to music?

The musical work is already protected in accordance with copyright law when it is created, i.e. when the song is played for the first time during rehearsals or when the text and melody are written down.

When does copyright for music expire?

Music copyright is 70 years after the author's death. After that there is a statute of limitations and it is in the public domain.

What to do if strangers use the self-composed song without permission?

In this case, there may be a copyright infringement. It is possible to take legal action against it.

Does the copyright for music also exist on Youtube?

Yes, anyone who uploads a self-composed song to YouTube is considered the author. Thus the copyright for music also applies here. In addition, the following applies: Anyone who incorporates third-party music into a video can commit a copyright violation. Therefore, it should be checked beforehand who the author is and whether approval is required.

A copyright infringement is only present if I exploit the music commercially, right?

No, that's not right. If you use pieces that are protected by copyright for music and offer them for download on your website for free, this is also a violation. If unauthorized distribution takes place, it is irrelevant whether this is commercial in nature or not.

When does music fall under copyright?

The Copyright Act (UrhG) explicitly counts in § 2 the "Works of Music" as protected works of literature, science and art, if these are a personal, spiritual creation.

Works of music are expressed through tones, the generation can thereby through Singing, instruments, nature or animal sounds respectively. For copyright it is irrelevant whether the guidelines of music theory were observed for the creation of the melody or whether the creation is even of a non-melodic nature.

A musical work does not require the written form, so sheet music is not necessary for protection by copyright. In addition, the composition must not held by a medium such as a CD or cassette. Already one musical performance is sufficient for the work to be perceived and thus protected.

Individuals too Parts of a work can be protected by copyright. However, a distinction must be made between whether it is a creative achievement or a banal sequence of tones. That is also important here Recognition value.

Which music rights apply?

Copyright consists of three components. Your purpose is that To protect the author as well as his work and to reward possible financial claims. The authors are usually the Composers and possibly the text author. Your rights can be summarized in the following three parts:

  • the exploitation rights
  • the usage rights
  • the moral rights

The Exploitation rights lie exclusively with the author and cannot be transferred to other persons before his death. He may decide alone when and in what form the respective piece of music is published, reproduced and exploited.

If publishers, record companies, broadcasters but also private individuals want to use copyrighted works in public, this requires a Author's approval.

Through the Usage rights the creator can leave his work to others for exploitation. Record labels, promoters, and publishers may be certain Acquire usage rightsto sell the musical work, for example, on sound carriers, to play it at public events or to print sheet music and lyrics in a book.

Anyone who buys a CD or an Mp3 file also acquires a right of use. This allows the buyer to Play an unlimited number of times a piece of music for private use. Publication in online file sharing sites, however, is not permitted.

The personal relationship between the musical work and the author is through the Moral law regulated. These include the right to be named and the Protection against disfigurement.

The German copyrights also still have 70 years after the author's death existed and are therefore passed on to his heirs. After that, they are in the public domain. This allows everyone to listen to the piece of music to be listed without authorization and financial compensation. However, there is still protection for the performing artists and the companies that have the rights to exploit them.

This is made clear by an example: "Für Elise" by Ludwig van Beethoven is because the composer died in 1827, public domain and may therefore be listed. Approval is therefore not necessary. If a contemporary artist stages the piece and publishes it on a CD, this song is not free of rights and is protected.

Authors can get through so-called Collecting societies be represented. These monitor, among other things, whether radio or television stations for musical recordings also have one Tariff numbers.


One such collecting society is, for example GEMA. This is mainly responsible for the Exploitation of musical works. GEMA negotiates on behalf of the authors Collective agreements with broadcasters and commercial streaming providers on the Internet. In addition, performing artists can also be represented by the GVL.

Does the copyright apply to a cover version?

Well-known songs appear again and again in the charts. It refers to Cover versions and remixes. But what must be considered with such a new edition so that there is no infringement of copyright for music?

A cover version is a new recording of a piece of music. The song is adapted to your own vocal range and possibly recorded with other instruments. A Machining of text and composition does not take place, however.

For such a cover song the necessary Rights acquired become. Usually this is done via the GEMA. Such license fees apply regardless of whether the piece is part of a performance or a recording for a CD.

Even for that Cover versions by fans on Youtube a license is required in theory. However, record labels tend to follow them Copyright Infringement not but see these videos as free advertising at. However, if the original work is distorted, legal measures cannot be ruled out.

Get bigger Changes to the melody or lyrics made, it is a Machining. The Author's consent required. A license agreement is then concluded for this purpose, which sets out the individual regulations. The author can do his approval but also deny.

The so-called Remixes are also a form of editing. Often these are from record labels or authors commissioned. In such a case, the legal situation is clear, and consent is given.

If you want to produce such a remix without an order, you have to get one from the respective rights holder, depending on the degree of processing Request and purchase license. If you are unsure, it is advisable to seek trained advice. Hiring a lawyer can help prevent potential copyright infringement.

What to do if the melody is stolen

Modern technology and the Internet make it possible: everyone can play pieces of music within a very short time download from the Internet, reproduce, distribute and exploit. But just because technology makes this possible, it is far from being compliant with German law.

Legal action can be taken against copyright infringement in the case of music. Both civil as well as criminal options for optional. The most commonly chosen remedy is that Warning.

The warning is a civil law measure that is used to Avoiding a process serves. With the warning, the author informs the alleged perpetrator of his misconduct, demands the omission this and collects if necessary Right to compensation.

If an artist uses passages from another song that are protected by copyright for music in his own composition and publishes them online, this is a copyright infringement. The author of the musical work copied in excerpts can now independently or through a lawyer send a warning.


In this, the misconduct is factually explained and reference is made to the original creation. Furthermore follows the Injunctive reliefto prevent the perpetrator from re-using foreign material. In addition to this, the Elimination claim asserted, which obliges to remove the new composition from the Internet. In the end, to compensate for financial losses, too damages required.

If there is no reaction to the warning, or if there is disagreement about the actual author or whether the copyright applies to this music at all, a Legal proceedings the next step.

During this process, a individual examination of the facts instead of. There will also be Expert interviewed and reports prepared. This usually leads to high costs.

Evidence of authorship in music

If legal disputes arise because of stolen music, they are often Author in the burden of proof. This means that you have to prove when the respective song was created. But what options are there to support your own statement?

Possible methods of Preservation of evidence are among other:

  • The testimony of witnesses
  • A letter addressed to yourself
  • Safekeeping with a lawyer or notary

A Testimony is possible when a composition is in the form of a private demonstration or by passing on a sound carrier to trustworthy persons. The credibility of the testimony increases when it comes to the people Bystanders acts. So at best no close relatives or friends.

It is important that the witnesses, if necessary, later specify exactly know when to play the piece of music heard for the first time to have. Are there Dates of great importance, because only in this way can a testimony exist in court and serve as evidence.

A popular method, because it is also relatively inexpensive and simple, is the Preservation of evidence through a letter. For this purpose, the data carrier with the recording of the musical work, the written notes or the formulated text are sealed in an envelope.

This letter will sent to your own address. With the postmark it is possible to understand when the work was sent and thus there is also a Reference point at the time of creation. It is important that the letter must not be opened under any circumstances, as this no longer makes it clear how long the works have been in the envelope.

The Evidential value the postmark in court is, however difficult to assess. After all, there is Possibility of manipulation. Envelopes can usually be reopened with hot steam without this being apparent.

That has the highest evidential value Safekeeping with a lawyer or a notary. He makes a note of when he has received the sheet music or the CD and keeps it. A lawyer or notary can be paid for this service. Due to the costs but this method is more likely for professional musicians and composers suitable.

Excursus: copyright in music

When it comes to music and copyright, it is not only important to observe national regulations. The European Union (EU) has to common rules in music law agreed. In Europe, for example, the same rules and regulations apply to music as copyright law in Germany.

That is true in the United States of America Copyright Law. By the circled "C" (©) are copyrighted pieces of music in the USA, but also other types of work.

Above all, the copyright represents the economic exploitation of the works takes center stage and does not primarily serve to protect the author and his creation, as is the case in Germany.

In addition, they are mostly economic recycler the right, i.e. record companies and publishers in possession of the exploitation and usage rights. The author is often left with only one limited right of vetowith which he has the opportunity to prevent the abuse of copyright.

In the USA too, new plants are protected up to 70 years after the author's death. are Companies in possession of the rights, the copyright applies 95 years. Until 1989 the copyright had to be registered individually, today this is no longer necessary. In the event of a claim for damages, however, it can be an advantage if that Copyright registered with the Library of Congress is.

International agreements and treaties ensure that copyrights apply across national bordersso that the protection but also a remuneration against plagiarism guaranteed can be.

Copyright in music - short and compact

Pieces of music and compositions are subject to copyright. Find one Recovery without consent instead of the respective rights holder, it is a Copyright infringement. There can also be a violation of copyright law with so-called cover versions.

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Music copyright: who owns a melody?
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