Five Areas of the Law that Musicians Should Know


5 areas of the law that musicians should know

Each June, America celebrates African American Music Appreciation Month.  The month highlights the contributions of the many famous African American artists who have enriched American culture.  However, artists at all levels -famous or not – must protect themselves legally.  All working musicians and performers need to know to the law to ensure that they do make costly mistakes.  Here are five areas of the law that musicians should know before hitting the stage.


Contract Law

Whether you perform at major stadiums, dive bars, or wedding receptions, you will want to get paid for your performance. Signing a contract is the best way to protect your rights.

When you are hired to perform, your contract should clearly list details such as the date, time, and location of the performance.  It should also specify how long you are expected to perform and how much you will be paid.  Additionally, you should look for clauses that tell you what will happen if you are physically unable to perform or the event is cancelled.

If you are a member of a band or a group, the group should have an internal contract.  This agreement should spell out the duties of each band member.  It should also discuss ownership of the band’s music and name.  It should also address what should happen if a member leaves or the group disbands entirely.


Copyright Law

Copyright law ensures that no one can use your music without paying you.  While copyright is a complex area of law, knowing a few key things can protect your art – – and your income.

Music copyrights protect musical works and sound recordings.   Musical works are the music and lyrics that would be found on a page of sheet music.   The sound recording is the performance of the music that would be heard on the radio.

While copyright exists from the moment a song is written or recorded, a copyright must be registered with the United States Copyright Office for the artist to take legal action against those who use his work without permission.  Despite urban legends to the contrary, mailing yourself a copy of your completed work does not give you the same rights as registering your copyright.   Luckily, registering a copyright costs as little as $35.


Employment Law

While employment law might not immediately spring to mind as one of the five areas of the law that musicians should know, it can impact the rights and finances of performers.

Generally, there are two types of workers:  employees and independent contractors.  If a worker is an employee, her employer is responsible for withholding taxes from her pay.  Additionally, employers provide employees with benefits, such as health and life insurance, worker’s compensation, and unemployment. Employees can join unions.  Independent contractors have none of these rights or benefits.

Because independent contracts are generally less expensive, employers often try to classify workers as independent contractors.  Of course, a signer who performs at one event is probably not an employee.  However, recent cases have concluded that musicians and singers who perform for an organization – such as an orchestra – over a lengthy period are employees, not independent contractors.  So, performers should be clear about their status before entering long-term contracts.


First Amendment Law

Musician’s First Amendment rights are simple, yet complex.  The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.”   Therefore, songwriters can write about any topic under the sun without government interference.  Songwriters and performers can also use any words they like to express themselves.  So, the First Amendment protects a musician’s right to write and perform a song about police brutality, as well as the right to call that song “F—k the Police.”   The band can even choose a band name that may offend some listeners.  The First Amendment protects it all.

However, the First Amendment only protects the musician from the government.  Because the First Amendment generally does not apply to private businesses, if companies chose not to hire you because of your music, the Constitution will not protect you.

The First Amendment not only protects what a musician says, but where she can say it.  While the law is complex and varies from state to state and city to city, in general, the First Amendment should protect a person’s right to speak in places that are freely open to the public.  As such, singing in public – or busking – is legal in most places.  However, police officers have made artists leave public spaces even when they had proof that their actions were legal.   So, exercise your rights with caution.


Trademark Law

A band needs more than great songs to succeed.  It needs a great name and a great logo.   However, the band’s name and logo must be protected.  Trademark law provides that protection.

Before you name your band, you should research your band name to make sure that it hasn’t been taken.  Once you know that the name you want is available, you should register it with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.   You can do the same thing with any logos or other work associated with your band.  (Fun fact: If your logo is especially artistic, it may also qualify for copyright protection.)

Trademark matters for several reasons.  When you register a unique band or group name, you have the exclusive right to use that name throughout the United States.  But if you haven’t registered your name, you only have exclusive rights to it in cities where your band was the first to use it.   If another group uses your name in a city before you register it, they have a legal claim to it in that city.   Though registering a trademark takes time and money, it will save you aggravation in the future.


Certainly, there are more than five areas of the law that musicians should know.  Also, the five areas of law mentioned here cannot be fully understood in just a few paragraphs.  Artists that want to succeed should get expert legal advice at every stage of their careers.  If you don’t have an attorney, use The African American Attorney Network to find an entertainment lawyer near you.