There is a saying that a diamond is forever. Copyright in an original work may not last forever but, like a precious gem, it can be an extremely valuable and enduring asset to the owner. 

This is because not only does the composer/author of a music work profit from its use while he or she is alive, but their family, estate or beneficiaries will keep on earning royalties from the music for 50 years after the music creator’s death. 

Copyright is an exclusive set of rights granted to a music creator – someone who composes original music or writes original lyrics. These rights ensure that the songwriter receives fair compensation in the form of royalties when a work is used in any form. This includes performing the work in public, or broadcasting, adapting, reproducing, publishing, distributing, synchronising to video or electronically transmitting it. 

In South Africa, the intellectual property that goes into creating a song is protected by the Copyright Act (No. 98 of 1978) and the Performers’ Protection Act (No. 11 of 1967). These laws ensure that whoever created the composition owns the copyright in it while they are alive, and for 50 years after their death. During that period, anyone who wants to reproduce the work in any form must seek permission from the composer or author, his/her heirs and any other rights holders – and must pay for using it. 

After the 50-year period has expired, the work becomes part of the public domain and may be used without compensating the author or composer’s heirs.You may cede part of the copyright in your works to other parties while you are alive – such as publishers and producers. Such rights should not, however, be given away lightly and it is in your best interests to do your homework before signing on any dotted lines. 

So the fruits of your creative spirit are protected by copyright in theory – but how do you enforce it in practice? Unlike trademarks or patents, legally, a composer or writer does not need to register copyright in their creative works. But as long as the work exists in physical form – in other words, not only as an idea in your head – it is automatically copyrighted. So it must be written down or recorded in order to be eligible for copyright protection. 

Remember, though, that when you notify your works with a collective administration society such as SAMRO, you are protecting your copyright (see article below). So be sure to value your copyright – the gift that keeps on giving!