The differences between the US, UK and European music rights systems

Reading time: 8 min

Music has no borders and this is one of the reasons why we love it. However, for its creators, the universal poetry of a melody can stop when the law of a country on its musical rights intervenes. In this case, it is better to be prepared to travel and capture these nuances to ensure its back. 

The purpose of this article is to offer you a world tour of these rules through 7 stops: France, Belgium, Spain, Germany, and Italy, as well as further away with the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US). It's not as complex as it sounds: the 7 countries fall into two categories, Civil Law for the European Union members and copyright for the English-speaking countries.

What are the principles of music rights in Europe? ️ 

An asset of the European Union (EU) is to have set up a common legal framework for its 27 member countries and fortunately for those concerned, music rights are part of its transversal principles.

Reminder about the copyright in Europe

According to European law, copyright is the right of the creators. It covers those who contribute to the composition - the composers - and those who contribute to the lyrics - the lyricists. They are protected by law as soon as they have created a song, so there is no need to take any steps. But to be sure to be protected in case of a problem, it is good to think about dating your creations. Copyright is based on two pillars: moral rights and patrimonial rights.

Moral rights allow the author to claim authorship of his work through four privileges:

  1. The right of disclosure where he decides when and how his piece will be disseminated for the first time. 
  2. The right to respect the name and the quality where the author must be mentioned as such on all the publications of his piece.
  3. The right to the respect of the work where he can forbid any cover or partial cover, like sampling.
  4. The right of withdrawal and repentance where he can ask, in exchange for compensation, that his work no longer be exploited.

It is also said that the moral right is: perpetual as it never stops and is transmitted to the heirs when the author dies; inalienable as it cannot be sold to third parties (a contract that says the contrary is not valid); imprescriptible as the author can decide to use it whenever he wants (a dead time does not justify that it is taken away).

It is the same everywhere except for one micro-detail: in Germany, moral rights can have a limited duration whereas in France, Spain, Italy, and Belgium they are perpetual. 

Then, the patrimonial rights. We advise you to follow carefully this part as it includes the mechanical ones that remunerate the authors, or the other entitled persons to whom they would have yielded them:

  1. The right of reproduction where he is the only one to authorize where/how his music is diffused when it is commercialized.
  2. The right of representation, which is based on the same principle as that of reproduction, except that here we are talking about performances of his music, not fixing it on a support.


The duration of the patrimonial right which was from 14 to 21 years at its codification in 1793, passed to 70 years in 1992. If the authors have designated heirs to their rights, the management of the work depends on their moral rights; if there are several authors, it is the death of the last author that counts (afterward, the music enters the public domain).

Copyright protects the creators of a musical work as soon as it exists - composers of songs and authors of lyrics - and combines the moral right, which lasts for life (except in Germany) + the patrimonial right, which lasts 70 years after the death of the entitled person. The moral right allows the author to claim the paternity of his work (release, credits, reworking...) and the patrimonial right allows to recover the money when his music is reproduced or performed. 

Reminder on the master rights in Europe 

The master rights concern the actors who intervene at the time of recording the musical work and protect this master (or recording).

Exactly as for the copyright, the law that transcribes the master rights is based on two pillars: moral rights and patrimonial rights. 

Moral rights also focus on the respect of the integrity of the performance, of the performer's name. He has the right to authorize or forbid the exploitation of his work, for example, he can refuse that a television program broadcasts a video extract of his last concert, he has a say on the integrity of his performance (reuse by another artist as a sample) and must be credited when it is exploited. This moral dimension is perpetual and non-transferable, it lasts the whole life of the performer (except in Germany), is transmitted to his heirs at his death, and cannot be sold. 

The patrimonial rights have the same principles here as in copyright. They concern what can be transferred by the performer and the producers of a master, they are temporary and last 70 years after the first broadcast or performance of it. The patrimonial rights give the artist the right to authorize or prohibit the recording, the reproduction, the communication to the public of his performance, as well as other exploitations (trailer, telephone ringtone, etc.).

The master rights protect the participants in the master of a musical work and combine the moral right, which lasts for life, and the patrimonial right, which lasts 70 years after the first performance or broadcast of the master. The moral right allows to secure the integrity of his work (credits, resumption...) and the patrimonial right allows to recover the money when his performance is commercialized. 

How does copyright work in the United States?

Two notions to keep in mind before going into details: 

  • Copyright is a principle that serves rather to list the rights of copiers than those of creators and includes equivalents of patrimonial rights. 
  • Neither the moral rights of the author nor the master rights are recognized there.

Why not? Culturally and even constitutionally, it is the freedom to create that takes precedence over intellectual property rights in the US. #Freedom!

Concretely, a work is considered created from the moment it is materially fixed on a support (even if it is not finalized), then protected by copyright which is based on a deposit system, for example with the U.S. Copyright Office. 

However, if you are a French creator and you wish to distribute in the U.S. your music previously created in France, you don't have to do so: thanks to the international text on the subject, the Berne Convention of 1886, your work remains protected by the rules of your country. How can you do this? Sacem has an international network in 97 countries where it collaborates with equivalent societies and collects your copyright royalties.

Who is protected by copyright? 

Back to the US and copyright. The person who owns the copyright is the one who financed the creation of the work. This is usually the producer, but it can also be the publisher, the author, the composer or even the performer. In any case, the copyright holder has the exclusive right to reproduce and communicate the work as well as to authorize the creation of derivative works, a perimeter roughly equivalent to the European patrimonial rights since it is by signing these authorizations that he/she is remunerated. 

So, how are the people who participated in the creation paid for their contribution (we are talking about songwriters AND performers)? It's simple, they are considered as employees of the copyright holder and it's him who pays them according to different clauses negotiated in an employment contract. We won't go into details, but basically, these contracts are tailor-made and can include agreements similar to moral rights, except that in the US they are by definition neither inalienable nor non-transferable. 

How does copyright work in the UK?

We end our world tour with a not-so-distant neighbor whose music rights management reflects its position, halfway between Europe and the US. Over there, musical rights are based on copyright, which protects the composition and/or the lyrics, and master rights, which protect the recording. 

The subtlety is that the copyrights belong, as in the US, to the person who financed the creation of the composition and/or the lyrics and that this work, again as in the US, must exist in a physical form to be protected. Even if the financer can be an indie artist playing in his room, we find the concept where it is the financial investment that legitimizes the property and not the creation.

This being said, the work does not need to be registered by copyright in the UK and the existence of this physical form is enough to give the right to affix the © symbol accompanied by the name of the financer and the year of the creation to signify that the work is protected. However, in Europe, it is better to join a Collective Management Organization (the best known in the UK is the Performing Right Society or PRS) to collect the copyright royalties as quickly as possible and without having to go to court in case of a dispute.

Copyright protects the publishing and master categories of rights with the same patrimonial rights as in Europe, but their duration is not the same: masters are protected 50 years after their first recording, and lyrics/partitions are protected until 70 years after the death of the author and/or composer. Also, the moral rights of repentance and disclosure do not exist. Finally, it is more complicated to win a lawsuit against an operator accused of not respecting the integrity of the work or performance by an artist.

In the US and UK, copyright is equivalent only to the patrimonial rights of European copyright, except that it protects the person who finances the creation of a work from the moment it has a physical form. In the US, the other European rights do not exist and any remuneration is subject to contractual negotiations between the funders and the creators + participants of the master. In the UK, the other rights are similar, except for 3 differences in the moral rights because the rights of disclosure and repentance do not exist and the respect of the integrity of the work is more flexible.

What do I need to remember?

The countries of the European Union share the same copyright laws, which aim to protect songwriters as soon as the work exists. The same is true for master rights, which protect performers and producers. In the US and the UK, copyright is only equivalent to the patrimonial rights of European copyright and protects the person who finances the creation of a work from the moment it has a physical form. The other European rights do not exist in the US, but they are more or less the same in the UK.

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