Up to this point, much of the information on Indie Preserves has centered on the physical and digital preservation of your label’s material and creative works. Retaining legal documentation of your label’s work is itself a form of preservation, and should be undertaken with the same level of earnest, game-face solemnity you bring to your physical and digital preservation*.
In the United States, everyone knows that when you create something, it’s copyrighted, right? We hope so. It’s been that way since 1978, when the Copyright Act of 1976 went into effect. (Way to go with that release date, government.) Prior to the Act, even if a work was published, if it had no notice of copyright, it landed squarely in the public domain; the Act extended copyright protection to all original works of minimal creativity and originality, provided they are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. (Copyright law is different for other countries, but so long as your homeland is a signatory to the Berne Convention, you too benefit from the copyright-as-of-creation concept.)
So if copyright applies from the moment of creation, that’s all we have to deal with, right? Well, no. You should still register copyright for your band’s/label’s releases in a timely manner -- that’s defined as within three months of its publication date. Officially registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office not only gives you a public notice of copyright, but also makes it easier to defend yourself against copyright infringement in court. According to Nolo, timely registration "creates a legal presumption that your copyright is valid, and allows you to recover up to $150,000 without having to prove any actual monetary harm."
Copyright registration is relatively easy, and can be done online using the U.S. Copyright Office’s eCO Registration System; expect to pay between $35 and $55 in fees. After registration is approved, you’ll receive a registration certificate in the mail -- obviously, you’ll want to make sure this is kept with your label’s other important documents.
Things are easy when it’s your own label putting out your own records. Things get infinitely more complicated when your label is putting out someone else’s creative work -- a fact that most reissue and archival labels know all too well. Chances are if your label is putting out someone else’s music, you have proper documentation about who owns them. If you don’t, you should start right now.
There are good reasons for some labels to work without contracts. Some people can’t afford lawyers. Some labels -- like Touch and Go, Factory, and Dischord -- either work primarily with friends or prefer to exist outside machinations of the music industry by working with artists on a personal, non-legal level. Some bands believe contracts to be worthless, as well as a pillar of corporate culture, opposed to their ideals of the punk/DIY ethic.
This might sound like an expensive proposition, but there are resources out there to get your juices flowing. For example, the American Bar Association has a sample recording contract available on their web site that you can look over, while Richard Salmon, an Entertainment lawyer and lecturer at London Metropolitan University, defined commonly used contract jargon in this blog post.
Better yet, take the initiative yourself to investigate the ways other independent labels have worked with artists. For example, Ian Mackaye’s Dischord Records has run for 34 years without contracts and without lawyers. On the other side of the coin, Touch and Go, which operated on similar principles, revised their agreements with bands after the Butthole Surfers sued for control of their back catalog. (We’d like to give a shout-out to Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, which is as informative about the early indie scene as it is unrelentingly entertaining.)
As an added bonus, after all pertinent parties sign the forms, you can place them in your neatly labeled folders. It’s all connected, man!
*We assume you’re bringing earnest, game-face solemnity to physical and digital preservation, but we won’t be checking on you to make sure of it...yet.