Let’s walk through some basics of copyright, talk about myths surrounding it, and go through how to copyright your songs, step by step.
How do you best protect yourself and your songs in the online and global community?
You get a copyright license, of course!
This handy-dandy legal protection allows you to safely upload your music to databases, allow other singers and bands to make covers of your songs (with you getting a royalty), and most importantly, grant you the top protection the law can give in case someone steals your music.
Of course there is a disclaimer when discussing legal matters! I am not a lawyer. SongFancy does not give legal advice. This article is a description in a non-legaleese manner to inform you in general about the copyright process.
It is much simpler and more straightforward than you might think. It does not require a lawyer to have your original works protected by copyright or to register your works for copyright (and yes, those are two different things as we will see).
The Basics of How to Copyright your songs
Copyright is the lawful ability (right) to make copies of any of your works.
Hence the name: copy-right.
What this means in practical terms is that you as the author (creator) of the work of music, art, writing, etc. hold the only lawful right to perform and record and copy your work without getting permission from anyone.
Why is holding this copyright so important to songwriters?
There are two main reasons why a copyright is so important: Placing your song in the world for licensing purposes, and protection in courts in cases of infringement.
After you obtain a copyright, you alone can grant permission for your song to be used by others via a mechanical or synchronization license.
These different licenses allow for others to perform covers of your songs, have your music be placed in TV shows, commercials, and even in films.
It is possible to upload your songs to a performing rights organization (PRO) without having a copyright registration, which will only grant you performance royalties if your song is placed in a show or film. Registering your song with a PRO does not give you copyright protection under the law.
To have your song protected under the law, you need to register it with the U.S. Copyright office.
A copyright allows you to have extra protection in court if someone hears your amazing song, decides to write something almost identical to your own, and then make a ton of money from it. If the court decides that your rights were violated, you can use the legal process to receive compensation.
What about copyrights for songs that have been co-written?
If you have co-written a song, then the copyrights for that song are shared equally among all who co-wrote the song. When registering copyright, you must list all the authors of the work.
Let’s talk about Works for Hire
Songwriters can sometimes become confused when they are hired to write a song, since the copyright process is different:
If you have been contracted to write a song for another with a contract, the song belongs to the employer as it has been “made for hire”.
To qualify for this, the song must be made under a traditional employer-employee relationship. If the song has been commissioned special for a particular work (such as, a song for a film) there must also be a written agreement between the employer and you that it was made for hire.
Otherwise, all songs are default copyright authorship to the original author(s) of the song.
Addressing The Poor Man’s Copyright and Other Myths
The poor man’s copyright urban legend says that if you mail a piece of your work to yourself and get it stamped and dated by the post office and then don’t open it up, you have a copyright. But does this work?
The poor man’s copyright also says that if you post on YouTube or other websites that it is protected under copyright.
These are myths surrounding copyright and confuse many musicians. You don’t need to bother with these methods of copyright because of one very simple and not understood fact:
The moment that you create a song, the work is under copyright.
Yes! The moment you finish your song, your song has copyright. It’s born with it.
That means that all your works are protected under U.S. law and you and you alone can create copies and perform your works. If someone wants to use your songs they need your permission.
Listen close, because my next point is super important:
This is not the same thing as registering your song for copyright.
Even though you’ve written a song, and it indeed was “born” with a copyright, it does not mean you will be protected in court unless you register the song with the U.S. copyright office.
Remember, the U.S. government is the only organization that defines U.S. copyright protection. Other websites online might try to sell you a cheaper or more expensive version of a copyright but they are trying to scam you. Save yourself and your songs by filing your songs yourself.
So, to review, the main 2 takeaway so far in this copyright conversation are:
- As soon as you’ve written your song and have it documented in a tangible medium, it’s copy-written!
- This is not the same thing as registering your song.
So, how do you legally copyright your work?
When you’re written your song:
In order to qualify for a U.S. copyright protection, you must create work which passes three tests,
- You (or a group) must make something new
- That “something” must be original and creative
- Write it down or otherwise record it so you can share it (be fixed in a tangible medium)
Thankfully for songwriters, almost everything that you write will naturally fall into all three of these categories!
The phrase “fixed in a tangible medium” is the legal term for having the song recorded in any way from writing down the lyrics and sheet music, to having an audio or visual recording of the entire song.
Once you have done these things your work is copyrighted! Your song is born, and it has been born with a copyright.
Now, let’s talk about registering your song.
Registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright office
You have the option to register your copyright, which I highly recommend for musicians.
In the unfortunate event that someone utilizes your work without your permission, it is much easier to prove copyright with registration.
In addition (and maybe even more important for performing artists), when you upload your music to YouTube you most likely will get flagged by their content ID system as not owning the copyright to your song and will need to provide evidence of US Government Copyright registration.
Do you need to register every single song you write?
Again, we’re not here to give legal advice. The decision of when to register your songs is your own. Some things to consider would be: Am I pitching this song? Is an artist going to record it? Am I recording it? Is it going to appear in a TV show or movie? Do I feel like the song is finished and doesn’t need any more updates? Keep in mind, there is a fee for every time your register a song.
All of these are good things to consider before registering your songs with the U.S. Copyright office.
Step by step: how to register your songs with the U.S. Copyright Office online
In America, the actual process of registering works is quite simple. The Copyright Office has a website, appropriately addressed www.copyright.gov, and on the home page is a large image for you to click through to register a work.
Registering online is the preferred method of protecting your work both for the government and for you!
It’s quick and easy.
However, you must make sure that you have an electronic file available to upload so that your work can be protected. This can be a pdf of sheet music with lyrics, or an mp3 or .wav file of the song. Make sure that your file includes the entire lyric and entire melody (melody, as opposed to backing chords).
After creating a login and password, you start the registration process.
Simply fill out a form stating what type of work you are registering and when it was created. Pick the option from the left-hand sidebar that best describes what you’re submitting.
Can I copyright songs under my band’s name?
There is no requirement that you file under your legal name, so bands can register a collection of songs. In this case make sure to check the box that says “pseudo name”.
How much does it cost to copyright a song?
The standard fee for uploading is $55, however if you are registering a single work and you are the sole creator, the fee is reduced to $35.
Can you register for more than one song at once?
Yes! This is the most cost effective method of obtaining your copyright. The Copyright Office will protect a body of work for a single fee of $65.
(Note, these prices are correct at time of writing and may have changed since publication. Make sure to check this information with the Copyright Office before registering for your songs.)
When is my song officially registered with the copyright office?
Registration of the work is complete as soon as the office is finished filing the work, not when you receive a written certificate of your copyright. This is good as the process can sometimes take weeks to get your papers.
And that’s it!
You can still register via paper mail if you prefer, just make sure to have a CD with the songs on it that you want protected. Additionally, you will not get the copies back of anything you send in.
What about copyright protection outside the U.S.?
If you’ve registered in the U.S. it is possible that your rights as the owner of the work extend to other countries. To see if they do, you can check with the database at the copyright office, located here: https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ38a.pdf
If you don’t live in the U.S. but have created work while over here, those songs are eligible to be filed for U.S. copyright protection. Otherwise, be sure to check your country’s copyright requirements and process.
What happens after submitting your songs for copyright registration
If you’ve submitted your works online, you will receive an email fairly quickly stating that the process has begun. The time it takes to go from start to finish of processing your works varies at times through the year. I’ve received my official paperwork in as little as 4 weeks and have waited up to 7 months. You can check here for current wait times: https://www.copyright.gov/registration/docs/processing-times-faqs.pdf
But! Remember that the entire time you wait for paperwork your works are protected and safe for you to play, record, upload, etc.
So, there you are! I hope that now you understand the basics of copyright for songwriters. This is one of the most important things that you can do in taking steps towards making songwriting your career. Remember to reach out to me if you have any further questions at firstname.lastname@example.org
Till next time my songwriting friends, rock on!