Copyrighting your music is crucial as an independent artist, because it gives you complete control over how your songs are used and distributed by other people. Having this control is one of the perks of being an independent artist after all, but you have to know how to make it work to your advantage.
When you come up with a new song, you automatically hold the copyright for it, as long as it’s in tangible form, meaning if you write it down or record it. Playing your songs live for other people does not automatically give you the rights over it, so keep that in mind. But even though copyright protection applies automatically for written or recorded music, you’ll still want to register your rights with the U.S. Copyright Office, for various reasons.
Why should you copyright your music?
While it’s true that copyright applies automatically to any creative work, as long as it’s in a tangible format, formally registering your copyrights is still recommended, although not mandatory. So, why should you take this step?
First of all, registering your copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office (USCO) gives you legal protection in case other people use your music without your permission. If another artist tries to use or distribute your work without your permission or without giving you credit, you are entitled to take legal action and seek damages. But in order to do this, you’ll need to be able to prove that you're the one who came up with the song first.
Another reason to copyright your music is that it provides clear, undisputed evidence of your ownership over your own songs. Being able to prove that you are the rightful owner and creator of your songs can be critical in case of a legal dispute over the originality of your work. Surely you’re familiar with the notorious legal battle between Robin Thicke and Pharrell and the Marvin Gaye Estate over the hit song ‘Blurred Lines.’ Thicke and Pharrell paid $5 million in damages to the Marvin Gaye Estate for copying Gaye’s iconic song ‘Got To Give It Up’ without permission.
Copyrighting your music allows you to distribute your music in all formats, physical or digital, to create samples or remixes of your songs, and perform them live. If anyone else attempts to do any of these things without permission, you are entitled to take legal action and show that you’re the rightful owner and creator.
How to copyright your music, step by step
First, a little bit of background. Legislation passed in 2019 by the U.S. Supreme Court states that all music and songs have to be registered with the USCO before an artist can file any type of infringement lawsuit or legal initiative. This means that it’s best to copyright your music as soon as possible.
If you wait until someone else uses your work without permission to do it, it might be harder to prove that you came up with the songs first, and you might not be entitled to damages. If you register your work with the USCO before your music is misused, you can get up to $150,000 per infringement, as well as legal fees, so don’t wait - register your music as soon as you create it.
1. Write down or record your songs
So, how do you go about it? The first step is obvious: write a song. But really, write your songs down, or record them, because you can only register copyrights for creative work that is in tangible format.
2. Add timestamps to each song
Then, you’ll want to be able to add a timestamp to your work, in case someone down the line claims that they came up with a melody or lyrics first. To do this, you can upload a digital recording of your song to a platform like YouTube or Spotify, or send yourself the digital files in an email. Or you can send these recorded works to your attorney, accountant, or manager, and get a dated receipt. An old-school way to timestamp your music is to mail these recordings to yourself by special delivery - this is what’s known as ‘the poor man’s copyright.’
3. Determine what kinds of rights you own
Next you’ll have to decide if you need to file two copyrights for the same song or just one. That’s because there are two distinct types of rights for each song: the rights to the music composition and the rights to the sound recording. If you’re both the singer and the songwriter, you can register a copyright for the entire song. However, if you’ve collaborated with other songwriters or composers, you’ll want to make sure that everyone gets credit, and you’ll want to file separate copyrights to include them.
4. Pay the required USCO fees
The USCO requires a small fee to copyright your music, namely $85 per song. If you’re the owner of both the musical composition and the recording, you can register up to 20 songs at once while paying a single fee of $85. However, if you’re just the songwriter, you’ll need to register copyrights for each song separately. The good news is that you’ll only have to do this once, because copyright protection is valid throughout the creator’s life, as well as an additional 70 years after their death.
5. Fill out the right forms
When filing for copyright protection with the USCO, there are two different forms to choose from: Form PA and Form SR. If you want to register copyright for the composition only (lyrics and/or melodies and chords), you’ll need to fill out the PA form (Performing Arts). If you want to claim the rights to a recording, you’ll complete the SR form (Sound Recording). If you own the rights to both the composition and the recording, aka you’re a singer-songwriter, you’ll only have to fill out the SR form.
If you hold the rights to both the recording and the composition, and you want to copyright more than one song (up to 20 at once), here’s what you need to do.
- Go to copyright.gov
- Click on ‘Register your works’
- Click on ‘Log into the Electronic Copyright Office Registration System’
- Under ‘Other Registration Options,’ click on ‘Register a Group of Unpublished Works’
- Choose ‘Sound Recording’ for the Type of Work
- Then start the process all over again for the next song.
You’ll be required to provide the titles for the songs, names of all the songwriters and composers, and the date that each song was created (this is where that timestamp comes in handy). Finally, you’ll have to upload a recording of each song you want to register the copyright for.
If you don't have the time or energy to do all the copyrighting work, we can handle the process for you, hassle-free, so you can focus on expanding your music career.
What can be copyrighted?
As an independent artist, you want to have complete control over your works and make sure that nobody attempts to steal your work or copy your creative ideas. However, you need to know that not everything relating to a song or a musical project can be copyrighted.
As a musician, you’re able to register song lyrics, as well as jingles, incidental music, symphonic pieces, and other types of completed musical compositions. However, you can’t copyright song titles, chord progressions, or incomplete works. So, unfortunately, no matter how clever or brilliant your song titles might be, you won’t be able to copyright them, and other people can use them in their own works.
How do you earn money from copyrighting your music?
Now that you officially and legally hold the rights to your music, you can use and distribute your songs however you like. You also are entitled to initiate legal action if anyone uses your music or lyrics without permission or giving you proper credit. This means anyone looking to sample, perform, distribute, or remix your songs will have to get your permission and split the royalties with you. Whenever someone wants to use your music or perform it live, you are entitled to receive copyright royalty pay-outs, as long as you’re registered with a Performing Rights Organization like BMI or ASCAP.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I have to copyright every song I make?
No, you don't have to individually register a copyright for every song you create. As mentioned earlier, your music is automatically protected by copyright as soon as it is created and fixed in a tangible form. This means that as long as you have evidence of when and how you created your songs (such as dated recordings or written lyrics), they are already protected. However, registering your work with a copyright office can provide additional benefits, such as the ability to more easily enforce your rights and seek damages in case of infringement. Many artists choose to register their entire albums or collections of songs together to save time and money, rather than registering each song individually.
Should I copyright my music before putting it on Spotify?
In most countries, your music is automatically protected by copyright as soon as it is created and fixed in a tangible form that is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device, such as when you record it. Registering your music with a copyright office can provide additional legal protections and make it easier to enforce your rights if needed. However, it's not a strict requirement to copyright your music before putting it on Spotify. Spotify itself has systems in place to track and manage royalties for artists. Still, if you have concerns about copyright infringement or plan to take legal action in case of disputes, registering your music with the appropriate copyright office can offer added security and evidence of ownership.
What is an example of copyright infringement in music?
An example of copyright infringement in music is when someone uses a copyrighted musical work without permission from the copyright holder, in a way that violates their exclusive rights. This could include unauthorized reproduction, distribution, public performance, or adaptation of the music. For instance, if an artist creates a song and another artist or entity uses a substantial portion of that song in their own work without obtaining the necessary licenses or permissions, it would likely constitute copyright infringement. Sampling someone else's music without clearance or covering a song without obtaining a mechanical license are common examples of copyright infringement in the music industry.
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