3 Legal Tips for Bands Looking to Hit It Big

You got into music because it’s your dream. You put up with hours of rehearsals, the rigors of recording, and the hardships of gigging. “What else do I need to do to lay a foundation for success?” you might ask. To answer this question, here are three legal tips that will prepare you for eventual success in the music industry and solidify the foundation you have already laid.

1. Copyright Your Songs, Artwork, & Logo

If content is king, then copyright registration is the king-maker. While technically an author has a copyright from the moment a work is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression,” an actual copyright registration is necessary to enforce that copyright in a court of law; without registration you are powerless to enforce your rights. Plus, only registered copyrights have the possibility of receiving statutory damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs, which are all important remedies that can ultimately decide whether pursuing a case of infringement is worthwhile or not.

And why stop at your songs? Copyright protection is available for your album artwork, liner notes, photos, and promo materials as pictorial/graphic works or literary works. Also, copyright protection is an often-overlooked vehicle for protecting your band logo; while logos can be protected by trademark law, a logo copyright is cheaper and can yield a bigger payout for infringement than a logo trademark.

2. Trademark Your Band Name

Trademarks protect words and symbols (and even colors and sounds!) used to identify the source of goods or services sold in commerce. For federal trademark protection, the goods or services must be sold in interstate commerce, which basically means across state lines. Although trademark rights can accrue merely from use of a mark in commerce (“common law trademarks”), infringement of such trademarks is more difficult to prove than registered ones. In contrast, trademark registrations put the public at large on notice that you are the owner.

The good news is that if you are a band offering your music for sale on the internet (whether via CDs or digital media), you can have your band name protected in association with your product. For bands offering to play shows across state lines, your band name could be registered in association with your “entertainment services."

3. Form a Band Partnership or Other Type of Entity

The last and most overlooked legal tip for bands is to form an entity separate from the individual members through which the band’s business is conducted. The easiest route is to enter into a band partnership agreement that all members sign, which is essentially a general partnership agreement tailored to the particular issues faced by bands. The most contested of these issues are (1) who can use the band name trademark after leaving the partnership, and (2) how profits and property will be allocated during operation or upon dissociation or dissolution. The band partnership agreement can address if and under what circumstances departing members may use the band trademark, or if and how departing members will get “paid out” upon dissociation.

Bands may decide to form an LLC (“limited liability company”) or a corporation, which are both entities that provide limited liability protection for the members’ individual assets from band-related debts and liabilities (think tour bus crashes or copyright infringement suits for uncleared samples). Partnerships do not give this type of protection; however, LLCs and corporations require state filing fees and sometimes minimum yearly taxes that partnerships do not.

In summary, copyrighting your content, trademarking your band name, and forming a band partnership or other entity will protect the fruits of your labor, insure that you get paid in case of infringement, and let you focus on making music.

Vintage Lollapalooza photo (1991) ("Ric wallace Lollapalooza") by Ric Wallace from Athens, Georgia - Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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