I am honored to have been named once again to Billboard magazine’s “Top Music Lawyers” List for 2023!
You can view the full list here.
I am honored to have been named once again to Billboard magazine’s “Top Music Lawyers” List for 2023!
You can view the full list here.
Don’t Get Screwed! How to Protect Yourself as an Independent Musician by Erin M. Jacobson, Esq. is now available in both print and ebook versions.
About the Book:
There’s a lot of confusing information in the music business: copyright, different types of royalties, how to get paid, and how to not sign over rights you shouldn’t. Now there is a single resource that explains these concepts in an easy-to-understand format.
Written by Erin M. Jacobson, one of the music industry’s top lawyers, this book is a plain English, straight to the point, primer on the topics you need to understand to make important decisions about your music career.
This book explains:
– what copyright really means and why you should register yours,
– the different types of royalties and how they actually apply in the real world so you can understand how and when your music earns money,
– how to collect the money your music earns,
– the contracts most needed by independent musicians and why they are important,
– traps to avoid, and
– real examples of mistakes musicians have made and how you can avoid making them too.
This book provides information from an industry insider that is not available in other publications, and is an empowering resource for new, upcoming, and seasoned musicians.
By: Erin M. Jacobson, Esq.
Music creators and rights owners ask me on a daily basis about whether their musical compositions and recordings are properly protected by copyright. Lately, there have been some companies popping up claiming to offer protection for musical works, and these companies are promoting misinformation that actively hurts music creators and rights’ owners. In this article, I set the record straight.
When a work created with sufficient originality to qualify for copyright protection and is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression,” it technically has copyright protection under the law. “Fixed in a tangible medium of expression” means that the work has been reduced to a physical format capable of being reproduced, such as writing it down, recording it on an audio or video recording, etc.
However, even though a work may have copyright protection when it is created, registering works with the United States Copyright Office provides certain benefits that one only has with a federal registration. These benefits include:
Let me emphasize two of these points again:
A person (or company) cannot sue in federal court for copyright infringement without a registration with the U.S. Copyright Office, and the date of creation listed on a federal registration certificate is the strongest evidence a court will consider.
The Nature of Copyright “Registration” Companies
To be clear, there are some companies that will provide the service of filing copyright registration applications with the U.S. Copyright Office on a creator’s behalf. While one should still do one’s due diligence on these companies to make sure they are experienced and will file the registrations correctly, the services these companies provide is not the focus of this article.
In this article, I am specifically talking about companies that offer “registrations” with their own service in order to “protect” a work. There are companies offering a “date stamp” – some of them even advertise an encrypted date stamp – to show evidence of the date of creation of a work. These companies charge just a few dollars per registration and make it appear that using their service will save the user a lot of money in comparison to the fees of the U.S. Copyright Office (currently ranging from $45-65 per application).
However, here is the problem:
First, as already explained, the date of creation listed on a federal registration certificate is the strongest evidence a court will consider. While a court may look at other outside evidence, there is absolutely no guarantee they will accept this evidence, and a court will still want the federal registration certificate. When I have inquired with these companies about whether they have any instances of a court accepting the registration they offer as valid, I have not received a response, and the fine print on these companies websites will state there is no guarantee their registration will be accepted as evidence by a court. In other words, the answer here is no.
Second, also as already mentioned, a federal registration certificate is required to pursue a copyright infringement claim in federal court. If one does not have a federal registration certificate and an infringement (or potential infringement) occurs, the owner of the allegedly infringed work will then have to immediately register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office in order to pursue the claim, AND, will have to rush the application to pursue that claim timely. The Copyright Office calls this rushed status “Special Handling,” and charges a fee of $800 to rush the application.
While someone thought spending less than $5 on a “registration” with a private company was saving money, that person would end up having to pay $845-865 just to obtain a federal registration to have the ability to defend an infringement for one work. If the person initially registered the work correctly with the Copyright Office, the fee would have been $45-65, and would have come with all the protections afforded by federal registration, saving that person $800 (plus the money already spent on the other “registration” company).
A Note about Trademarks
Trademarks, which in the music space mostly apply to band names and company names, have a little more leeway here because trademarks can gain protection by use “in commerce”, i.e. out in the marketplace. However, the same benefits outlined for federal copyright registrations apply to trademark registrations as well.
Therefore, while these trademark “registration” services provide an example of using a name at a certain time, they do not provide the good will that can only be built by using the mark in commerce, which could include performing under that name, selling music under that name, etc. Plus, one also cannot sue to protect a trademark in federal court with out a federal trademark registration.
Therefore, the same arguments above also apply here as to why these companies are a waste of money.
What if There Is No Federal Registration?
For both copyrights and trademarks without federal registrations, there may be some protections under state “common” law, however, these protections only extend within a certain state (hugely important in the case of trademarks especially), and provide a much lower level of protection than federal registrations.
Music creators and rights’ owners receive bad information all the time — from friends, other people in the business, and the internet. However, what really makes me mad is when companies – many of them owned by musicians or former musicians – make promises to music creators and rights’ owners under the guise of helping them, when really the “service” they provide does not afford the level of protection suggested and is profiting off the ignorance of music creators who are simply trying to protect their work.
Are these companies malicious in their intentions? Probably not. They probably just saw what they thought was a creative business idea. As I mentioned, the fine print usually indicates that these services only provide an indication of a date of creation and no guarantee of acceptance as evidence by a court, but let’s face it, almost no one is going to read the fine print. Independent musicians already working with smaller budgets do not need to spend money on worthless date notations when they should be putting their money toward receiving all of the benefits afforded by federal copyright registrations.
A person can file one’s own registration applications with the U.S. Copyright Office, and those on a budget may be able to file some applications containing multiple works (if certain conditions are met). However, because the details of such registrations can often become nuanced, one can also hire an experienced music attorney to assist with correctly protecting one’s works.
All music creators and rights’ owners deserve the real and true information on how to protect their works. The correct information is available and can be obtained with a little research or by working with professionals acting in accordance with the definitive procedures provided by U.S. Copyright Law.
Creators and rights’ owners owe it to themselves to protect their work correctly, rather than looking for a cheap solution that will ultimately leave them and their work unprotected when it counts.
This article does not constitute legal advice.
Erin will speak on the panel “Music Licensing in the Digital Age” at the virtual Thriving Roots conference, produced by the Americana Music Association.
“Music Licensing in the Digital Age”
Date: September 18, 2020
Time: 3:15-4:45 PM Central
Jeff Brabec, Esq., BMG, & Author of Music, Money, and Success
Todd Brabec, Esq., Author of Music, Money, and Success
Erin M. Jacobson, The Music Industry Lawyer
Kirk Schroder, Schroder Brooks Law Firm
By: Erin M. Jacobson, Esq.
This article was previously published on Synchtank.com.
The music industry is comprised of very specific customs and practices as to how business is done. The music industry functions in its own world, and its customs and practices are foreign to and widely misunderstood by most people not working in the music business. Therefore, when those outside the music industry place restrictions on how music’s business can be carried out, the results can be disastrous.
Case in point, the new AB5 law in California. AB5 stands for Assembly Bill 5. It was introduced at the end of 2019 and went into effect on January 1, 2020. While this is a California law, it can affect the music business on a global scale.
AB5 was enacted with the aim of equalizing benefits and fair treatment for workers, especially those with part-time gigs, like Uber drivers. The intention of the bill was to make sure these types of workers also received the benefits of full-time employees, such as health care, and also to enforce businesses to pay employment taxes to the state instead of circumventing those taxes by classifying all of its workers as independent contractors.
AB5 takes the decision of a recent California Supreme Court case  and enacts it into law. AB5 dictates a new test for determining who is an employee versus who is an independent contractor. The determination of whether a worker is an independent contractor is now subject to what is called the “ABC Test”. In order for a person to be considered an independent contractor rather than an employee, the hiring entity must show all of the following:
Here’s the translation in plain English:
Part A basically means that the worker is hired for a job and determines how he or she will do the work. This has to be shown in the written agreement between the hiring entity and the worker, and also has to be true in practice. For example, when one hires a bookkeeper, the bookkeeper will determine when and how he or she works, and how the work gets done. This will also be reflected in the agreement between the hiring entity and the bookkeeper. The hiring person is not going to tell the bookkeeper how to perform the work of a bookkeeper, nor is one business owner going to tell another business owner how and when to conduct business.
Part B means that the worker is performing work that is not the same business as the hiring entity. Again, using the bookkeeper example, if a musician hires a bookkeeper, the bookkeeper does very different work than the musician.
Part C means that the worker has his or her own separate business doing the type of work the hiring entity hired the worker to perform. Staying with the bookkeeper example, the bookkeeper would have his or her own bookkeeping business and perform bookkeeping work for other clients.
By default, workers are now considered employees unless the hiring entity can show the worker is an independent contractor. There are many exceptions to this rule, such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, graphic designers, repossession people, and more. However, there was no exception granted for those who work in the music business.
Because there is no exception for the music industry, music professionals are subject to this law.
This means that a musician is now an employer when he/she hires:
If that musician is an employer, then he or she would be required to take out withholding tax from the workers’ pay, pay payroll taxes to the state, potentially provide health care benefits, file all appropriate tax forms, etc. This could be crippling to independent musicians, both financially and administratively.
Companies are not exempt from these requirements either. By contract and in practice, artists have always been considered independent contractors in relation to record labels, and this practice continues today. Songwriters have been considered independent contractors to music publishers, as composers have been to music libraries. This could all potentially change if AB5 is enforced based on a literal interpretation of the ABC Test. It could force companies to completely change the way they do business, which may be at the detriment of musicians. It is possible that companies like record labels will make sure their contracts are issued only from their offices outside of California.
It also may force many in the music industry to move their business outside of California where the “gig” way of doing business continues. This would be a blow to the California economy both from losing the revenue from the music industry, as well as the taxes from all the musicians and companies that would move out of California to continue their current ways of doing business. AB5 may also affect independent film companies and non-union film projects. As the California economy relies heavily on the entertainment industry, this surely would greatly reduce the benefits legislators hoped AB5 would bring to California by increased income from employment taxes.
No one knows. The law was drafted so broadly and is so new, that it is completely untested. No one really knows how to proceed and how this law will be applied in practice.
Some in the industry and online have tried to think of different ideas to continue doing business as usual without violating the law, but none seem to have a viable solution.There have also been lawsuits filed against AB5 and actions to move toward an appeal. One website (which is really part of one California Assembly candidate’s website for his election campaign)  allows the public to post their stories of how AB5 has or will affect their careers.
What most people are doing now is trying to proceed with caution and stay up to date with any changes. It’s a very uncertain time, but one can hope for a favorable resolution. Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County, 4 Cal.5th 903 (2018).  Assemb. B. 5, 2019 Leg., Chapter 296, Statutes of 2019 (Ca. 2019).  Id.  Id.  This campaign website is provided for informational purposes only. It is not an endorsement by Erin M. Jacobson, Esq. of any candidate or cause.
Note: This article does not constitute legal advice.
Erin M. Jacobson, Esq. was interviewed on the BBC World Service show, Business Daily.
The topic of the overall segment was corporate control over creative works, but Erin’s interview was focused on explaining the dispute over Taylor Swift’s master recordings, and begins at about 12:50.
You can listen to the interview here.
Erin M. Jacobson is interviewed in US Weekly magazine to explain how Big Machine is blocking Taylor Swift from performing her old songs.