Any time someone listens to a recorded song, they are listening to a sound recording. Sound recordings themselves are copyrightable. However, they also have embodied within them other copyrighted works called compositions, which protect musical elements of the song like the melody and lyrics. While it is important to understand what a sound recording is in the eyes of copyright law, it is equally important to understand its significance in 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.
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.”
A sound recording is a seperate intellectual property from any lyrics, compositions, poetry, script, or speech that may be embodied within it. Because of this, they are separate entities in 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:
Overall, it is important to remember that a sound recording is copyrightable and that it may contain separate copyrighted works, too.
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, which creates motion in the surrounding air molecules. This continues, with molecules transferring their energy to molecules nearby, until there is no more energy to transfer.
Sound waves travel like a pebble thrown into a pond. When the pebble hits, 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.
All microphones contain a diaphragm, which 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 currents are then transcribed to a written or graphic version which is etched onto a 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 which then causes the magnets within the medium to restrict their vibrations to one direction.
In digital recording, the diaphragm still collects analog signals from soundwaves. However, the signals are then converted to the 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.
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 to 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 and etches it onto a cylinder wrapped in thin aluminum foil. A hand crank is used to spin the cylinder as the sound is being recorded. This machine is the foundation of analog recording.
The thin aluminium cylinders were replaced with wax cylinders, which allowed for more playbacks before the inscriptions wore down. Eventually, flat discs were invented. 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, allowing mobile listening. 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.
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 the 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 on a (digitally or physically) appears 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.
*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. *
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:
Mamie Davis, Jacob Wunderlich, Luke Evans, Rene Merideth, & Aaron Davis