One of the most controversial topics in the world of arts and entertainment is copyright. A copyright is a form of protection afforded to an artist to restrict unauthorized copying of their work, administered by the U.S. Copyright Authority. It costs $45 and includes guidelines for prosecution for breaking those restrictions. The advent of the internet and the prosecution of filesharing networks launched a very public debate between artists, corporations that make money off artists, and consumers of art over the new definition of fair use of copyrighted material. Record companies are doing their best to make sure no one hears a song without paying (except on radio stations owned by their corporate partners), while many artists are questioning whether people using and distributing their work without permission is such a bad deal.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation ( and Creative Commons ( are great resources that helped me create this breakdown of the hows and whys of copyright:

How Copyright Affects You What You Can Do About It
The Artist

A standard copyright assigned to your work will restrict anyone from distributing it without your permission. That means many places that would give your music free promotion might fear you possibly suing them, even if you wouldn't. Sometimes ending up on a YouTube video that goes viral can be better than a thousand ad campaigns. But, if you retain the level of control afforded by a copyright, you're guaranteed to receive royalties if and when your music is played on the radio or used in someone's creation.

As the creator and owner of the work, you decide what kind of copyright to apply to it. If you would like it to be free for anyone to use for any purpose, you can let it run free into the public domain. There are other kinds of licenses that allow you to restrict some usages of your material. These licenses are called Creative Commons, and they come in many flavors, including some that allow other people to remix or sample your songs and distribute the results as long as they don't make any money from your music.

The Record Company

Major record companies like standard copyrights because the system is set up to benefit them. If they find you using their works without permission, they can demand that you cease, and sue if you don't. They are also allowed to restrict access to their products through encryption and other means, generally referred to as Digital Rights Management (DRM). You can also get sued if you find ways to bypass DRM.

Many independent record companies have embraced the Creative Commons licensing, especially labels like Illegal Art that deal mostly in works consisting of samples. Indies don't generally have the money to spend on massive marketing campaigns, so allowing people who love the music they are producing to propagate it further with or without remixing is a cheap, effective strategy for exposure.

Record Stores/Radio Stations

Major record stores like copyright because anything that forces people to buy records improves their bottom line. Radio, another major distributor of music, is not so sure. Congress voted to exponentially increase publishing royalties paid by internet radio broadcasters to the owners of copyrights, leaving many of these online stations looking at huge fees that will almost certainly cause bankruptcy.

Right now the only thing you can do to save free internet radio broadcasts (webcasting) is to write to your representatives and ask them to reject the rulings of the Copyright Royalty Board. The stations, which include local indies KEXP and Rainy Dawg Radio, would have to pay retroactively to January 2006. The payments for regular FM broadcasting (an industry dominated by gigantic corporations) are so much lower that you can practically hear the CEOs of those corporations cackling as they eliminate their competition.

The Consumer

Even if you buy a record, providing the artist his or her proper royalties, you are subject to prosecution if you share it with your friends over your personal network, or even if you make a mix tape with it. Copyright also doesn't allow you to sample or remix another person's work without express permission and probably payment. This means that the creepy guy selling bootlegs on the street could theoretically get the same punishment as the 13-year-old girl singing along to her favorite Evanescence song in that YouTube video.

You can avoid prosecution by supporting artists who choose Creative Commons licensing, and making sure to follow that usage agreement. Of course, the record companies usually go after bigger fish than someone sharing a record with their friends, but that's only because of infrastructure issues. If they had the resources to track you down and find you, they would prosecute you.