MUSIC Ownership


Copyright is the means by which songwriters and composers, and those who invest in their work, make a living. This is because copyright law gives owners of copyright in musical (and other) works certain legal rights in their work. This allows them to control how their work is used and negotiate payment when other people want to use their work in these ways.

The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) gives copyright owners in musical works and lyrics the exclusive right to:

  • reproduce the work: for example, by recording a performance of it, photocopying it, or downloading it from the Internet;

  • make it public for the first time;

  • perform it in public;

  • communicate it to the public (including via radio, television and the internet);

  • translate it (for lyrics); or

  • arrange or transcribe it (for music).

Music Industry Terms

The music industry uses the following terms to describe some of these rights:

  • Mechanical right: this refers to the right to reproduce a song on a sound recording, for example, on a CD or digital download;

  • Synchronisation right: this refers to the right to reproduce music onto a soundtrack of, say, a film or advertisement, where there the music is synchronised with moving images

  • Performing rights: This refers to the right to perform music in public (whether live or by way of a recording) and to communicate it to the public (by, for example, a broadcast or playing it over the Internet).

Unless there is an agreement to the contrary, copyright in a musical work, and any lyrics, is usually first owned by the creator of that work, although there are certain exceptions to this rule.

In practice, creators often assign or license their rights to third parties who exploit them on their behalf.

APRA (the Australasian Performing Right Association) administers the public performance and communication rights on behalf of its members, most composers. For more information about APRA, go to

Publishers may exploit the other rights: reproduction, including mechanical rights (some via AMCOS) and synchronisation rights, print and, in some cases, translation and arrangement rights, on behalf of the composers they represent.

Copyright Duration

Generally speaking, in Australia, copyright in musical works and lyrics lasts for the life of the composer plus seventy years. In New Zealand, the copyright term is the life of the composer plus fifty years.  Again, there are exceptions to this rule.

Rights In Sound Recordings

Sound recordings are also protected by copyright, separately to the music and lyrics. This copyright protects the investment made in recording a work, and is usually owned by the person or company that makes the recording or commissions the recording to be made (often a record company), unless there is an agreement to the contrary or an exception applies. If you own copyright in a sound recording, under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) you are generally the only person who can make copies of the recording, perform it, cause it to be communicated to the public or rent it out.