Strangely enough, indie music label Quote Unquote Records has been shut down by its web hosting company for violating its own copyrights. When Quote Unquote was unable to produce Copyright Office registration forms for its founder's own songs, the web hosting company shut the website down.
Quote Unquote was a donation-based record label where artists donated their works under the creative commons license. Fans could then go and download the songs for free. Essentially, Quote Unquote acted as a curator for free music. This is one way to extract value from free content. Although free music is great, sometimes the sheer volume of it can be overwhelming. In a world awash with free music, it can be helpful to have someone you trust sort through it for you and pick what you might like. In a world where physical distribution is no longer a critical service, this is something that record labels like Quote Unquote can contribute – they find artists who might appeal to a group and present them to fans.
The story of Quote Unquote does more than highlight how the music industry might evolve. It also presents an opportunity to appreciate two important points.
First is the point about what it takes to get copyright protection – or, more specifically, what it does not take. You do not need to register a work with the Copyright Office in order to get copyright protection. Although there are plenty of good reasons to register your copyright, and you do need to register in order to sue for infringement, you can register even after the infringement occurred in order to sue. The fact that you are unable to produce a copyright registration merely means that you have not paid the Copyright Office $35, not that you do not have a legal copyright.
Second is a point about what you can copyright. The details are still sketchy, but it looks like Quote Unquote's web hosting company is claiming that the site was taken down because hosting copyrighted files violated its terms of service. This does not make a lot of sense. Remember, not just songs are copyrightable. Just about all of the content on the Internet is copyrightable, and is automatically granted copyright protection as soon as it is created. That means that this blog post is protected by copyright. So is the front page of the Quote Unquote site. Any graphics used on the site are also protected by copyright. It is likely that just about every word and every picture on every website hosted by Quote Unquote's web hosting company is protected by copyright. However, it is probably safe to assume that the web hosting company has not requested that every customer produce a registration certificate for everything on their site. Why not? From a liability standpoint, statutory damages are the same whether I infringe on a song, graphic, or even a blog post.
This post also appears in Public Knowledge's new music website NYMusicCopyright.org. The site is designed as a resource for musicians and anyone interested in music copyright.