What Laws Affect the Use of Music Written by Non-U.S. Songwriters?

Question

My father is producing a music album with a group of his friends. The songs they intend to perform and include are well-known in South America. Can they sell that music here in the United States? What are the laws governing this use?

Answer

If your father planned to perform, record, and sell a song by a well-known American singer, there would be little doubt that such music would be protected by U.S. copyright law. If music is protected under copyright, it would violate the law to reproduce the songs on a recording. Unless your father got permission from the song's owner(s), usually a music publisher, he would be exposed to civil liability.

As a general rule of thumb, the same restrictions apply even if the music was written by a foreign artist. Songs written by songwriters outside the U.S. are protected under American copyright laws because of international treaties that grant protection to foreign authors. The web of international treaties relating to music copyrights can be complex. The U.S. Copyright Office offers a convenient summary of the treaties governing relationships with different countries.

Your father might believe that a lawsuit from a South American music producer is unlikely. Indeed, it would be time-consuming and expensive for an artist in another country to retain an American lawyer to sue for copyright infringement.

However, it is always better to be safe than sorry. If your father takes music without permission, and then records it and profits from it, he could find himself in a very weak legal position. Many artists both inside and outside of the country will register their copyrights on public online databases, which you can check at websites like Harry Fox, ASCAP, and BMI.

Your father's safest strategy would be to contact the artist in South America, or the studio that represents the artist. They might be willing to have increased exposure in the United States, and willingly give a limited license.

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