Can You Copyright a Drumbeat?

In light of the many high profile plagiarism cases making headlines in the music business over the last few years (Lana Del Rey, Led Zeppelin, Robin Thicke, Sam Smith, etc.), it felt like the right time to examine the topic of songwriting from where we all sit: the drum throne.

All of the above instances of alleged plagiarism involved similarities in melodies or chord progressions. But what about drum beats…can they by copyrighted?

As a starting point: any musical performance that is recorded in any form already has an automatic copyright in the recording of that performance. In other words, nobody could sample or otherwise exploit your recorded performance without your consent.

So the real question we need to ask: are drumbeats considered songwriting? If they are, then they form part of the musical composition and would be protected under the law just like a chord progression, melody or lyric.

The short answer: unfortunately, no. Drumbeats and drum patterns are not typically considered songwriting. The law makes clear that lyrics, melody, harmony and rhythm can be copyrighted. Most often, lyrics and melody are afforded protection under the law before the other two. This is arguably because the latter two are considered “accompaniment,” while the first two form the backbone of the composition, and remain consistent regardless of who is performing the composition.

This is actually a good thing in many ways. If every drumbeat was considered songwriting, the Bonham ‘Levee’ beat, the Bo Diddly groove, the ‘We Will Rock You’ stomp, even the standard four-on-the-floor pattern would all exist in only one song, and if you emulated any of them in a new song, you could be sued for plagiarism.

So really, the lack of protection affords us all the ability to do more in the studio, without fear of being sued. Singers and guitar players, for example, do not have such a luxury.

However, if you lifted the ‘We Will Rock You’ beat, along with similar hand claps and stomps, and added a vocal melody or phrasing similar to Freddie’s, that as a whole would likely be considered plagiarism. So it seems that a drumbeat and something else needs to be added before the piece will be considered songwriting.

Now, this is not to say that you don’t deserve a cut of songwriting when you write songs with your band. Many bands divide songwriting equally amongst all the members. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Coldplay, etc. all divide the songwriting copyright equally for each song, even though the law doesn’t recognize the drummer’s contributions in the same manner. It’s a way of recognizing each member’s contributions as a whole to the songs and perhaps general operation of the band. In other words, it’s completely up to you and your band mates how the songwriting is divided for each song, regardless of what the law typically acknowledges.

As always, feel free to email me with questions, as songwriting is the most complex and sometimes confusing aspects of the music biz.

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