The Music Never Stopped

Rock n Roll Law may be the coolest name for a law practice, except I really do not practice law much. I tell people that makes me a “happy lawyer.” Since 2013, I have been a full-time continuing legal education speaker on music copyright law. Pre-COVID, I traveled the country doing seminars, and now I mainly do webinars, but I am hoping to get back to in-person slowly this year. So, most of my time is spent promoting, preparing and preaching the gospel of rock ’n’ roll law. I am one of very few lawyers lucky enough to do CLE full-time.

Music copyright law nestles between intellectual property and entertainment law, though likely closer to IP law. The three pillars of IP are trademarks, patents, and copyrights. The latter is probably the least understood, especially music copyright law. Once you record a song, you have two copyrights, and all of music law flows from this. There are a lot of gray areas in this area of law, because how music is created is a mystery to most. As a creative person, and lots of lawyers are, I love the ambiguity.

Once you put a song into a “tangible medium of expression” (record it), you then have two copyrights—the music composition (the music and lyrics), and the sound recording (how the music composition sounds to the ear). Typically, in the major label world, the label owns the sound recording (normally referred to as the “masters” or “master recording”), and the publisher owns the music composition, or at least collects money on behalf of the songwriters. See 17 U.S.C 102(a).

Now, that you have two copyrights, you get six exclusive rights with your copyright, depending on the specific copyright. See 17 U.S.C. 106. With music, it all starts with a song. Think of music copyrights as building on each other. Say you have a set of lyrics (a literary work), and then you add music to the words. You now have a music composition. Once you record it, you add the sound recording in the mix. Say you put the song in a movie, it is being added to an audio-visual work. That is a quick overview of music copyright law.

My course is usually a full-day overview of music copyright law with up to two hours of ethics, exploring the ethical issues in representing a rock band. Hint: they are not typical clients! I play a lot of music, interview clips from podcasts, and videos in my course. I also use artists such as The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin, among others, as a case study. I follow their careers and legal issues. I am always on the lookout for new material and update my course every year.

I have had a circuitous legal career. I have worked for the government and been in private practice. A law degree gives you a lot of options. I am also a singer-songwriter and have released several albums, so I was vaguely familiar with music law. I wrote songs long before I became a lawyer.

I was attending a worker’s compensation seminar that I thought was boring. Most CLEs are. The speakers may be well informed, but they end up reading from a script with an overstuffed PowerPoint. To be fair, it is hard to make most legal topics interesting, but I thought there must be a better way. Thus, Rock n Roll Law was born. I would have to try and make this topic boring, because there is no end to the fascinating topics and stories from the music world.

So, I took my love of music and the fact that I am an attorney and married them. I wish I had done it sooner, but I had to go through what I did to formulate the concept. Further, I studied music copyright law and made myself as much of an “expert” as I could.

Most lawyers do CLE as a volunteer and perhaps get referrals that way to broadcast their expertise. While not my goal, I do have a handful of clients I advise on music contracts and disputes. Music copyright is a very specialized area, and I get cases from lawyers who have taken my course or heard about me.

That is my practice. I hope to see or talk to you down the road. And, as always, keep rockin’!

About the Author

Jim Jesse is an attorney and songwriter who has released four albums under his own name. He is also the author of The Music Copyright Manual and The Musician’s Guide to Music Copyright Law. Contact him on Twitter @rocknrolllaw.

Send this to a friend