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Can You Copyright a Chord Progression?

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Manish Jindal

August 25, 2023

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Can You Copyright a Chord Progression?

Are you a creator wondering ‘can you copyright a chord progression?”

Navigating the waters of music copyright can often be confusing for creators, particularly when it comes to elements like chord progressions.

Are these critical components of harmony protected by copyright, or do they belong to the collective toolbox of all musicians?

In this blog, we’ll clarify this intriguing aspect of  law, shedding light on what can and cannot be copyrighted in the world of music.

Let’s delve into the fascinating realm of chords and copyrights.

Can You Copyright a Chord Progression?

Chord progressions are not subject to copyright. This is because they are considered a basic building block of music, much like colors are in visual art.

There are a finite number of possible chord progressions, and many songs share the same or very similar progressions.

If chord progressions could be copyrighted, it would severely limit the ability of musicians to create new music.

However, a specific arrangement or recording of a chord progression can be protected by copyright.

The melody or lyrics set to a chord progression can also be copyrighted.

Infringement can occur if a song is substantially similar to another song in its overall expression, but using the same chord progression alone is typically not considered infringement.

Copyright Protection for Sound Recording

Sound recordings are protected under law.

The protection applies to the specific rendition or recording of a song, not the underlying song itself.

In other words, the copyright for a sound recording protects the particular series of sounds “fixed” (recorded) against copying and other uses, separate from the copyright of the song (the musical work).

Here’s how it works:

Rights of the Copyright Holder

The owner of a sound recording copyright has the exclusive right to perform the work publicly, to reproduce it, to distribute copies, and to prepare derivative works.

This includes the right to control the performance, sale, and distribution of the recorded work.

How to Copyright a Sound Recording

A sound recording is copyrighted automatically when the performance is recorded.

However, to have the full weight of protection, including the ability to bring a lawsuit for infringement.

You should register the copyright with the appropriate government office, such as the U.S.  Office if you’re in the United States.

The process usually involves filling out a form, paying a fee, and submitting a copy of the work.

Length of Protection

 As of the latest rules up until 2021, in the U.S., protection lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.

For works made for hire, the duration of copyright is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

Exceptions

It’s important to note that there are exceptions and limitations to these rights, such as “fair use”.

Fair use allows limited use of  material without permission for purposes like criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.

Copyright Protection for Popular Songs

  1. Composition and Lyrics: The musical composition and lyrics of a song are typically protected as a musical work. The composer and lyricist hold the copyright for the composition and lyrics, respectively.
  2. Sound Recordings: A song’s specific rendition or recording is separately protected as a sound recording. This copyright is usually owned by the record label or the performer, depending on the terms of the contract.
  3. Exclusive Rights: Copyright owners have the exclusive rights to reproduce the song, distribute copies, perform the song publicly, display the work, and create derivative works based on the song. 
  4. Term of Protection: As of the latest rules up until 2021, in the U.S., protection lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. For works made for hire, the duration of copyright is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.
  5. Registration: While a copyright exists from the moment a work is created, registration of the work with the U.S. Office (or the equivalent agency in other countries) provides additional benefits, such as the ability to sue for  infringement and the potential to recover statutory damages and attorney fees.
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    Limitations: There are exceptions to these exclusive rights, such as “fair use,” which allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission for purposes like criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.

Copyright Protection for Rhythms

Apart from the common query ‘can you copyright a chord progression?’, copyright protection for rhythms plays a vital role.

Individual rhythms, like single musical notes or simple beats, are not protected by  law because they are considered fundamental building blocks of music.

However, a complex, unique rhythm sequence as part of an original musical composition could contribute to what is protected by the copyright of that composition.

Additionally, the actual sound recording of a rhythm in a song can be separately protected.

Laws can vary by country and evolve over time, so for specific advice, consult a legal expert or copyright authority.

Can Someone Claim Chord Progressions as Copyright Violation?

Chord progressions are considered basic musical building blocks and, as such, are commonly reused among various pieces of music.

Therefore, using a chord progression that has been used in another song does not typically constitute a violation.

However, while a chord progression itself is not copyrightable, a specific melody, lyrics, or a combination of elements (such as a melody over a chord progression) can be copyrighted.

This means that while you can use the same chords, copying an existing melody, lyric, or substantial part of a song could be seen as a violation.

It’s important to note that  law can change and can vary by country, so for the most accurate and current information, you should consult with a legal expert or a copyright authority in your country.

Consequences of Copyright Infringement in Musical Elements

  1. Legal action: The copyright holder can file a lawsuit against the infringer. If the court determines that infringement has occurred, it can order the infringer to stop the infringing activity.
  2. Damages and Profits: In a lawsuit, the owner may be entitled to recover damages suffered as a result of the infringement, as well as any profits the infringer made from the infringement. In the U.S., for example, statutory damages can range from $750 to $30,000 per work infringed, and up to $150,000 per work for willful infringement.
  3. Attorney’s fees and court costs: If the owner prevails in a lawsuit, the court can order the infringer to pay the owner’s attorney’s fees and court costs.
  4. Criminal penalties: In some cases, infringement can lead to criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment, particularly if the infringement is willful and involves commercial gain.
  5. Reputation damage: In addition to legal consequences,  infringement can damage a person’s or company’s reputation, especially if the infringing party is a professional in the music industry.

Conclusion

In conclusion, for the question ‘can you copyright a chord progression?”, the answer is: Chord progressions themselves cannot be copyrighted as they are considered fundamental building blocks of music.

Copyright law allows for the free use of these elements to encourage creativity and the evolution of music.

However, while you can freely use chord progressions, you must be cautious not to copy other significant elements like melody, lyrics, or substantial parts of an existing song, as these are protected under law.

Always remember that while rules offer a framework, each case can have unique considerations, and laws can vary by country and over time.

For the most accurate and current advice, always consult a legal expert or  authority.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you copyright a chord progression?

No, you cannot copyright a chord progression.

Laws are designed to protect the expression of an idea, but not the idea itself.
A chord progression is considered a musical building block, much like a color or a word, which can’t be owned by one person or entity.

It’s the unique combination of these elements in a particular arrangement or pattern that can be copyrighted.
 

 Can I use a chord progression from a famous song in my own music without infringing copyright?

Yes, you can use a chord progression from a famous song in your own music without infringing copyright.

As mentioned above, chord progressions themselves are not protected by  law.

However, melodies, lyrics, and other unique elements from a song are copyrightable, so be sure not to use these unless you’ve obtained the necessary permissions or licenses.

What elements of a song can be copyrighted?

The elements of a song that can be copyrighted include the lyrics, melodies, rhythm, and arrangement.

These elements are considered the original expression of an idea and are therefore protected under  law.

That said, generic elements such as chord progressions and standard rhythm patterns are not copyrightable.

How does a copyright infringement case in music get determined?

Infringement cases in music are typically determined by examining whether the accused song substantially copies original elements of the work.

This often involves a detailed musical analysis comparing the two works. Factors considered might include melody, rhythm, lyrics, and song structure.

However, as mentioned before, chord progressions, as common musical elements, are typically not part of this consideration.

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