Producers, Distributors, Artists. Who (and in what order) I must ask if I want to publicly reproduce a song (such as in a software, commercial, etc...)?
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What is being Protected?
The copyrights of published music primarily involve these two properties:
Using a song from a CD (or an MP3) requires the licensing of both the sound recordings and songwriting. An artist covering the work of another artist, without making use of the original recordings is required to license the songwriting only. In the case of sampling, if a non-melodic portion of the work is being sampled, it is possible that only a license for the sound recording is needed.
Who owns the Copyrights?
Nearly without an exception:
How Long the Copyrights Last for?
This varies between countries. As a general guideline:
For instance, Imagine by John Lennon was released in 1971, he was murdered in 1980. So the sound recordings will become public domain in 2041, while the songwriting will become public domain in 2050.
How can I check who owns the Copyrights, if at all?
There are various ways to do this. The easiest one would be to contact the relevant collection society in your country. For instance, in the UK, PPL deals with sound recordings, while PRS with songwriters. These collection societies have a database of all releases, dates, and copyright owners.
Alternatively you can contact the publisher and the label of each release separately.
How do I Obtain a License?
You would need to contact and obtain a license from the copyright owners, typically a publisher (for songwriting) and the label (for sound recordings). Alternatively, you may wish to contact the artist management who will guide you further on the steps necessary.