What Is Music Law?

Music law is the law that affects the music industry.

Music is commercially bought and sold in the United States and around the world.

Any law that impacts how the music industry does business is part of music law.

Music law includes any laws of any kind that apply to the business of creating, selling, performing, and listening to music.

Music law is a part of entertainment law.

Who Does Music Law Impact?

Music laws impact most people in society in one way or another.

Music law impacts the people who write music and the distributors who purchase the rights to perform and sell music.

Music law also impacts performers who must have a legal right to perform music.

Businesses that seemingly have no relation to music law like restaurants must ensure that they comply with music laws when they conduct business.

Even consumers must follow music laws.

Federal, State, and Local Laws May Apply

Music laws may be federal, state, or local.

There are a number of federal laws that impact the music industry.

There are also state laws that may vary from one state to another.

Even a local authority like a municipality may make a law that impacts the music industry.

Music attorneys must be careful to look at all sources of law in order to advise their clients.

Licensing and Publishing

The person who writes a song owns the legal right to it.

They may choose to perform the song themselves, or they may choose to sell the rights to perform the song to someone else.

A songwriter can sell the rights outright, or they can allow someone else to perform the song while they get some of the profits.

In addition, it’s up to the artist or record label to negotiate with the song’s owner to purchase just the rights to perform the song or the ownership of the song itself.

Songwriters typically belong to an organization that helps writers connect with people who want to purchase music.

These agencies help broker sales between interested parties.

Music lawyers must help their clients carefully negotiate agreements for music sales and licensing.

They must help their clients create contracts that protect their interests and help them sell or purchase music.

To the extent that music law involves buying and selling the rights to music, music law is contract law.

When disputes arise, music law may involve litigation.


Another important area of music law is the law that applies to broadcasting and the live performance of music.

There are many entities that broadcast music.

Radio stations, television stations, bars, restaurants, and even schools broadcast music or perform it live.

There are music laws that determine what a person or group must do in order to broadcast or perform music.

Because the creator of a musical work gets a copyright for the work, people who want to broadcast a work or perform it live usually must have a license from the owner.

There are some important exemptions.

Music attorneys may advise their clients as to whether they need a license for what they want to do.

For example, a radio or television station typically pays the music owner for non-exclusive rights to the work.

The cost of a radio station’s license depends on the size of its audience, the station’s revenues, and how often the station plays the music.

A music owner may ask for reports on when the station plays the work.

Even if a television station buys broadcasting rights to a musical work, the broadcasting rights alone may not cover the right to publish the song on a DVD.

When a television show moves to DVD, the publishers of the television show may need to re-negotiate licensing for the music to appear on the DVD.

It’s not uncommon for television shows to have to change their sound if music owners aren’t able to agree on terms for the music’s inclusion in a DVD release.

Live Performance

Buying the sheet music alone doesn’t give a consumer the right to perform a musical work. Instead, the purchaser needs a license to perform the work live.

Exceptions to licensing requirements are called Fair Use.

The courts look at fair use exceptions on a case-by-case basis in order to determine whether the performer violates licensing laws by performing the work without a license.

Some fair use exceptions include:

  • Criticism of the work which may include praise as well as negative comments
  • Satire
  • Commenting on the work
  • News reporting
  • Non-profit, educational teaching
  • Academic research
  • Small businesses
  • Certain religious performances

The Musical Licensing Act of 1997 addresses exemptions that exist to licensing requirements for radio, television, and certain types of businesses.

Small businesses like bars, cafes, and restaurants can play the radio or a television in the background of their business without violating licensing requirements.

While they can play a broadcast on radio or television, they can’t play a recording of the music without a license.

They also can’t arrange for a live performance without paying for a license.

Music attorneys help their clients understand what licenses they need.

Music lawyers can help their clients secure the licenses they need in order to operate lawfully.

If a copyright holder accuses a business of a copyright violation, music law may involve negotiating a resolution or bringing the matter to formal litigation.

Other Areas of Music Law

While music law focuses primarily on copyright law and licensing, music law also involves other areas of law in the music business.

Other types of law that are part of music law include:

Contract Law

Contracts are at the heart of the music business.

Artists, songwriters, producers, distributors, and even consumers rely on contracts to create, sell and listen to music.

Many performers and event producers are independent contractors, and music producers rely on distributors to sell their work.

For all of these people in the music industry, contracts are important to make sure that everyone involved has clear expectations.

Even consumers use contract law in the music industry.

Anyone who buys a subscription to a music service or even buys a concert ticket has some interaction with music-related contract law.

Immigration and Visa Requirements

Performers who travel to another country in order to perform for pay often need an immigration visa for that purpose.

To enter the United States, non-citizen musicians generally need one of a number of different P category visas depending on the nature of their work.

Music lawyers must help their clients secure the visas that they need in order to enter the country for their intended purpose.

Safety and Health

Music performances are productions.

They can be dangerous.

Music producers must comply with Occupational Safety And Health Act requirements for the safety of their employees and independent contractors.


Whether you’re a U.S. citizen, a lawful resident, or simply in the country for a short duration to perform, all musicians in the United States are subject to U.S. tax laws.

U.S. citizens may also need to pay taxes for what they earn abroad.

In addition to tax liabilities, there are tax exemptions and deductions that may help musicians like a deduction for a home office or expense deductions for self-employed musicians.

Music law may involve tax law to the extent that music lawyers may help their clients comply with tax laws and lawfully minimize their tax liability.

Who Practices Music Law?

Music lawyers are entertainment lawyers.

They’re primarily contract lawyers, but they also work in all of the fields of law that music law may involve.

Music lawyers also handle dispute resolution that may include formal litigation.

While music lawyers work throughout the United States, they may concentrate on areas where musicians need their services.

Some music lawyers may function as an all-purpose agent for their clients.

Other music lawyers work only on legal issues that arise for their clients.

Why Become a Music Lawyer?

For attorneys who enjoy contract law and negotiations, music law may be a good fit.

A lawyer who advises their client in all areas of music law may have a well-rounded practice.

Lawyers who enjoy music may enjoy working on behalf of those in the music industry.

Music law can be academically challenging, and it can involve many different types of law.

A music lawyer can tailor their practice to meet their interests.

Keeping the Beat With Music Law

Music law is important to creating and performing music.

Music lawyers do their part to help their clients understand the laws and protect their interests.

While the music industry primarily involves licensing and contract law, music law may involve a number of different types of law that are all a part of creating and performing music.

Michael Morales

About Michael Morales

Michael Morales is the Webmaster and Editor in Chief for Legalcareerpaths.com. With a strong background in Web Publishing and Internet Marketing, he currently works as an independent consultant. A former paramedic and ems educator, he enjoys punishing himself doing triathlons and endurance sports. Michael currently lives in sunny Northern California, home of the highest tax rates in the world.

4 Responses to What Is Music Law?

  1. Avatar
    Tom Dawson #

    Music law professionals have the opportunity to support artists in achieving their dreams while safeguarding their artistic creations.

  2. Avatar
    James McAlary #

    Success in music law often requires a deep understanding of both legal principles and the music business.

  3. Avatar
    Gail Brown #

    One of the great aspects of music law is its dynamic nature, as it often adapts to technological advancements, streaming platforms, and new forms of music distribution.

  4. Avatar
    Julie Tolar #

    Music lawyers help artists, record labels, and music professionals navigate the complexities of the industry, ensuring fair compensation and protection of creative rights.

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