Why We Wrote This Guide

Any time someone listens to a recorded song, they are listening to a sound recording. Sound recordings themselves are copyrightable. However, they also have other copyrighted works embodied within them. These other copyrighted works are called compositions. Compositions are the copyrighted material of a song, which is the melody and lyrics. While a sound recording is the copyrighted sounds related to compostions. Although it is important to understand what a sound recording is in the eyes of copyright law, it is equally important to understand a sound recordings' significance in the terms of the development of the entertainment industry. The record industry wouldn’t be worth a dime if it wasn’t for sound recordings. We wrote this guide to explain the basic science of sound recordings and their significance in history and copyright law.

Who This Guide Is For

  • Recording artists who want to know their rights
  • Producers who want to learn about using sound recordings in their work
  • Songwriters and composers who want to understand how sound recordings relate to their compositions
  • Anyone who wants to learn more about recorded sound


What is a Sound Recording?

A sound recording is the reproduction of sound waves into fixed form from which the contents can be heard or communicated again. The Copyright Act of 1976 defines sound recordings as “works that result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds but not including sounds accompanying a motion picture or other audiovisual work.” So, a sound recording could be a person playing a musical instrument, singing, reading a book, giving a speech, or even natural sounds from the earth such as the wind or birds chirping. This broad spectrum of sounds can make the idea of what a sound recording is somewhat confusing.

Inherently, a sound recording is a separate intellectual property from any lyrics, compositions, poetry, script, or speech that may be embodied within it. Meaning that a sound recording is a separate entity in the terms of copyright ownership and licensing. This complexity is what makes understanding exactly what a sound recording is (and is not) so important. These examples may help clarify the concepts:

  • There is a song in the public domain, which means it is free for anyone to use and is not protected by copyright law. John records a version of the song, and Sally records a version as well. Each of them own the copyright to their respective sound recordings of the song. However, neither of them own the song or composition itself, because it is in the public domain.

  • Dylan wants to record a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s song “I’m on Fire.” Dylan will have to obtain permission to do this from the owner of the composition. However, Dylan is making his own recording and his sound recording has nothing to do with the original sound recording of “I’m On Fire.” So, Dylan does not need to obtain permission for the sound recording.

  • Emily is a hip-hop producer who wants to sample “Respect” by Aretha Franklin in her new single. By sampling something, she is taking the sound recording and manipulating it to fit within a new work. Emily will be using the sound recording and, by default, the composition that it embodies. She will need to obtain permissions from the copyright owner(s) of the sound recording and the copyright owners of the composition.

Overall, it is important to remember that a sound recording is copyrightable and that it may also contain separate copyrighted works, too.

How Does Sound Work?

A sound wave is a mechanical wave. This means that it is energy transmitted through a medium (liquid, solid, or gas) from one location to another through particle interaction. A sound wave starts when the source of the sound vibrates. This creates motion in the surrounding air molecules, which continues as molecules transferring their energy to molecules nearby, until there is no more energy to transfer.

A simple way to think about sound waves is like a pebble thrown into a pond. When the pebble hits the pond, a deep ripple is created tightly around the area it entered the water. That ripple will set the water molecules around it in motion, creating more waves with increasing distance from the source and decreasing depth. This continues until there is no more energy to displace the water particles.This is how sound waves work.

How is Sound Captured?

All microphones contain a diaphragm. A diaphragm is a thin piece of metal, paper, or plastic that reacts to the changes in air pressure caused by the compressions and refractions of sound waves. After the sound reaches the diaphragm and causes it to vibrate, the vibrations travel through the microphone and are converted into electrical currents.

In analog recording, these electrical currents are then transcribed to a written or graphic version. The electrical currents are etched onto the recording medium. For instance, a stylus would cut the translated soundwaves into a vinyl record.

In magnetic recording, sound waves travel as electrical currents through a small electromagnet. The soundwaves (through the magnet) create a small magnetic field. This causes the magnets within the medium to restrict their vibrations to one direction.

In digital recording, the microphone's diaphragm still collects analog signals from soundwaves. However, the signals are then converted into a digital form via sampling. In sampling, binary numbers (a series of zeros and ones used in coding) are used to represent and hold the data of the soundwaves. These numbers represent the air pressure changes caused by the soundwave over time.

History of Recorded Sound

Sound was first recorded in 1857. However, the first time sound was recorded with playback abilities wasn’t until 1877 when Thomas Edison’s company created the phonograph. The phonograph uses a funnel-shaped horn to direct sound waves into a small, sensitive diaphragm at the base of the horn. The diaphragm moves as a reaction to the changes in air pressure created by soundwaves. A needle is connected to the diaphragm, which allows the needle to move in a pattern that mimics the pressure of the soundwaves. This is then etched into the cylinder wrapped in thin aluminum foil. A hand crank is used to spin the cylinder as the sound is being recorded. The phonograph is the foundation of analog recording.

Later, the thin aluminium cylinders were replaced with wax cylinders. This allowed for more playbacks before the inscriptions wore down. Eventually, flat discs were invented, and by 1894, flat discs were the standard format in the recording industry. By 1902, the production of flat discs had advanced enough to allow the mass production of sound recordings from one master disc.

This system dominated recording until 1925, when electricity began to replace previous devices that relied on wind-up motors.

The creation and evolution of electrical recording led to many advances: stereophonic sound recording, magnetic tape recording, multi-track recording, portable and instant recording, and more. By 1948, the vast majority of the recording industry had fully transitioned to magnetic tape recording. As a result, magnetic tape recording and reproduction evolved and offered commercial stereophonic recordings. Eventually, in 1963, compact cassettes entered the market.

The convenience, portability, and affordability of compact cassettes led inventors to strive for ways to make the recording and listening process even easier. In 1980, the Walkman was released. The Walkman allowed for mobile listening through its new, more accessible format. Three years later, CD-roms were invented. CDs offered a more durable, cheaper product with more length capacity and higher fidelity. This innovation marked an enormous change in the recording industry. Beginning with the CD, the entire business shifted to digital recording. In the following decades, MP3 files were invented and iTunes was developed.

The development of MP3 files and online music consumption platforms like iTunes led to many more inventions in music technology. At the beginning of this stage in digital music, piracy became a larger issue than ever as consumers could share and duplicate MP3 files without even leaving a computer desk. This issue remains prevalent today, though the industry has shifted to adapt to the new economic style.

Copyrighting Sound Recordings (USA)

By registering a sound recording with the US Copyright Office, copyright owners gain protection for their intellectual property. Copyright owners of sound recordings have the exclusive right to the public performance of their work via digital audio transmissions. They usually do not have the exclusive right for all public performances, such as live performances.

Sound recordings are copyrighted upon fixation, which is when the recording first appears (digitally or physically) on a phonorecord. Neither registration or publication are required for copyright owners of sound recordings. However, by registering copyrights owners become better protected in the case of a legal issue.

Benefits of Registering a Sound Recording

  • By registering a sound recording (or any intellectual property), the claimant creates a public record of their ownership claim(s).

  • By registering a domestic work, claimants gain the right to file an infringement suit.

  • By registering a domestic work within five years of publication, prima facie is established. This means that all facts stated in the copyright claim are seen as valid by the court.

  • In case of an infringement case, copyright owners that register their works within three months after publication (or before infringement) are eligible to receive statutory damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs.

  • By registering a domestic work, copyright owners can register with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for protection against the importation of infringing copies.

*Note: Copyright notices containing a copyright symbol and other related details are not mandatory on phonorecords created on and after March 1, 1989. Until 1972, sound recordings were not protected under federal copyright law. Any recordings made after February 15, 1972, however, are eligible for copyright protection. *

How to Register a Sound Recording

To register a sound recording with the US Copyright Office, applicants must go through a three-step process. The entire process can be done (if preferred) online:

  • Complete an application. This will include the following information: type of work, title, publication, author, type of authorship, limitation(s) of claim.

  • Pay a nonrefundable fee.

  • Provide copies of the recording as a “deposit.” The deposit copies for a published work that is first published in America should be two of the best copies (highest quality) available to the public. If the work has not been published or has only been published digitally, applicants can submit digital files rather than physical phonorecords.



Composed by
Isabella Weaver, Mamie Davis, Jacob Wunderlich, Luke Evans, Rene Merideth, & Aaron Davis

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