How do people create music without copyright issues whenever there are millions of songs already created that are copyrighted?


How do people create music without copyright issues whenever there are millions of songs already created that are copyrighted?

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For the same reason authors write books while millions of books are copyrighted. There are a lot of ways to combine 26 letter.

The space of possible songs is preposterously huge. Imagine if you randomly picked a number larger than 100,000,000,000 and smaller than 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. How likely are you to pick the number I’m thinking of? The space of possible songs is far, far larger than that, so there’s even more room for people to find new stuff.

There are millions of songs that where written a long time ago and are now in the “public domain”. If I accuse you of copying what I did, you can defend yourself by showing that someone else did the same thing a long time before I thought of it.

Short answer: they don’t.

Copyright covers the composition (lyrics + lead melody) and the recording (actual sound).

The originality of your recording is taken care of simply by not using anyone else’s recordings in your work (no sampling), otherwise you have to get a license to use whatever snippets you used.

The originality of lyrics and melody is handled like any other written material; there’s a vague “de minimis” standard: a single word or note isn’t protected, but longer phrases are. So if you’re going to intentionally quote another song, your publisher will require you to get a license for what you quoted, even if there’s a chance it’s fair use.

The chances of two people accidentally coming up with the same lyrical or melodic phrase in the same era is greater than zero, of course. But people in the music biz are nerds who have heard a *lot* of music over the years, so if your melody or lyrics are potentially infringing, usually there’s *someone* in the process of making and releasing your music who will notice and say something before the song goes public. In other words, the music business is somewhat self-regulating in this regard; there will always be someone who says “this reminds me of that ABBA song” and then someone will intervene to stop the train.

Now let’s say the song gets past those filters and is now published and released, and turns out to have some lyrics or melodies that are identical to an already released song. This does happen, because there are typically “only 12 notes” to work with, as they say, but the end result is usually that the publishers and/or lawyers get in touch with each other and work out a settlement. Songwriters generally know that these accidents happen, and will work with you on a compromise. Maybe you just add the original writer as a co-writer and split the royalties, or maybe you give up your rights to the song entirely. So it stays published and out there, but just no longer “yours”. Or the settlement may be more hostile, involving a cease-and-desist order, along with destroying all copies of your song already out there. Very rarely will it go to trial.

^((This is all notwithstanding the fact that all creative works, to some degree, are crafted by standing on the shoulders of giants, just rearranging/tweaking/riffing on known material. Also there are entire genres of music which are very much built on wholesale copying of melodies & rhythms, so it does get thorny trying to navigate the copyright issues. But courts and legislatures are not so nuanced; they avoid musicological analysis, and only care about substantial similarity.))