How to Copyright Your Music

May 16, 2013{ 25 Comments }

copyright image How to Copyright Your MusicWhy independent songwriters should register the copyright for their music

[This article is written by guest contributor Anthony Ceseri.]

Please Note: This article discusses opinions on copyrighting your music and should not be considered legal advice. If you’re unsure about how the copyright laws in your country will affect you, please contact a lawyer before proceeding.

When you submit a song for copyright you’re simply proving the date of submission of your work. The fine folks of the copyright office don’t sit around listening to every submission to see if they’ve heard it before. That would be an impossible task. When you write or record your song, technically, you’ve created it — and thus you own the copyright to it. By submitting a song to the copyright office, you’re protecting your music simply by acknowledging the date of its creation.

It’s also important to note that certain aspects of your song are not protected even if you’ve registered the copyright. These include:

* chord progressions

* the overall idea or concept of your song

* and a title or short phrase

Just think about how many songs have used cliche ideas like “I wish you were here,” or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Also, imagine how many copyright infringements there would be if the I – V – vi – IV chord progression could be copyrighted. On the other hand, melodies and the actual lyrics are very much covered under copyright protection.

Beginning the copyright registration process

The website for submitting your song for copyright in the United States is http://www.copyright.gov/. On this website, you’ll be able to print forms for mailing in the music you want to copyright, or you can submit your music for copyright online, which makes submitting even easier.

When it comes time to copyrighting your music, there are two forms you can use as a songwriter. They are Form SR and Form PA. Technically, there are three forms, if you consider the fact that there’s also a short-form version of the PA form. But that offers the same protection as the PA form. SR stands for Sound Recording, while PA stands for Performing Arts. So how do you know which one to use? The following is from the Copyright Office’s website and will answer that for you:

When to Use Form SR (Sound Recordings)

Use Form SR for registration of published or unpublished sound recordings, that is, for registration of the particular sounds or recorded performance.

Form SR must also be used if you wish to make one registration for both the sound recording and the underlying work (the musical composition, dramatic, or literary work). You may make a single registration only if the copyright claimant is the same for both the sound recording and the underlying work. In this case, the authorship statement in Space 2 should specify that the claim covers both works.

Form SR is also the appropriate form for registration of a multimedia kit that combines two or more kinds of authorship including a sound recording (such as a kit containing a book and an audiocassette).

When to Use Form PA (Performing Arts)

For registration purposes, musical compositions and dramatic works that are recorded on disks or cassettes are works of the performing arts and should be registered on Form PA or Short Form PA. Therefore, if you wish to register only the underlying work that is a musical composition or dramatic work, use Form PA even though you may send a disk or cassette.

Examples of the Proper Use of Forms PA and SR

Jane Smith composes words and music, which she entitles “Blowing in the Breeze.” Even though she records it, she is not interested in registering the particular recording but only in registering the composition itself. If she decides to submit “Blowing in the Breeze” for copyright registration, she should use Form PA.

Emily Tree performs and records Jane Smith’s “Blowing in the Breeze” after complying with permissions and license procedures. If Emily decides to submit her recording for copyright registration, she should use Form SR.

The same principles apply to literary and dramatic works. A recorded performance of an actor speaking lines from “Hamlet” could be registered on Form SR as a sound recording. The claimant in the sound recording, of course, has no copyright in the underlying work, “Hamlet.”

Copyright registration costs…

There is a cost associated with each application, whether it’s a Form PA or From SR. Check the Copyright Office’s website for the most up-to-date fees. The good news is, if you’re copyrighting your own music, you can submit multiple songs under one application for one application fee. So if you’re copyrighting an album of ten songs, as opposed to copyrighting them one by one, you’ll save a few hundred bucks when protecting your work. Plus it saves you the paperwork of copyrighting all of your songs separately.

Poor-Man’s Copyright, and Other No-No’s

It’s also worth mentioning that there are a couple makeshift copyright alternatives that songwriters occasionally like to talk about. I don’t recommend doing these. The most popular is called the “Poor Man’s Copyright.” This is when you physically mail a recording of your song to yourself via certified mail and keep it sealed. Supposedly the postmark on the envelope will date your music and therefore protect you if someone comes along after that and steals your song. A newer version of this idea is simply putting your song on YouTube or another time-stamped social media outlet. The idea is that your music is dated and therefore protected by the time stamp on the social media site.

All I can say about these kinds of alternatives is — DON’T DO THEM! Their ideas may make sense to you, but if it ever came down to a court battle, you would absolutely want your music properly registered with the copyright office. Especially considering the fact that it’s really not that expensive if you submit a whole collection of songs at once. Taking the proper means to protect your music is something all artists should do as they move forward with their music careers.

Now that you have a background on how to get your music copyrighted, move forward with the process so you can get your music out to the masses and get heard!

For a lot more useful songwriting information, grab my free EBook here: http://successforyoursongs.com/freeoffer/

Publishing 
Guide: Make More Money From Your Music

[Copyright image from Shutterstock.]

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  • http://www.facebook.com/tom.hawk.music Tom Hawk

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but when I took the course on copyright law (circa 1978), submitting an album or collection of songs was not recommended because if someone "lifted" a song off a 12 song album, the author would only be entitled to 1/12 the normal compensation for infringement.

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      I haven't heard that lately, so I'm not sure if the laws have changed in that regards — but hopefully some of our lawyer-friends will weigh in here to set the record straight.

      @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Hey Jim,

    Yep. SR form will cover you for the sound recording and the underlying composition.

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://iangibson.com/ Ian Gibson, Esq.

    Excellent point, Paul. Please be advised, the added benefits that come with registration are only available if registration occurs prior to infringement or within three months of first publication of the copyrighted work.

    One benefit you didn't mention is an attorneys' fee award — in other words, the court may require the infringer to pay the prevailing plaintiff's attorney's bills. This benefit alone can make all the difference in whether an infringement suit may be worth filing.

    I am worried that may readers may not understand what your reference to "statutory damages" means. It's an often misunderstood concept. Here's an article that may shed some light on the subject http://goo.gl/ktMma

    Best,
    Ian
    Copyright, Trademark and Entertainment Attorney
    iangibson.com

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      Hey Ian,

      Thanks so much for sharing that clarifying info. Very helpful.

      @ChrisRobley

  • MotherFBR

    Could you write a similar article on how to register your songs under a creative commons licence, that would be great.

  • WIRE_C

    I was able to send online up to 4 MP3's (songs/SR) at copyright.gov….. all for 35 $. Each SR submission is 35 dollars. You could also print the form SR (sound recording) and send your material in by usps mail. It is a good idea to do it before you put your songs "out there" online and it is easy to follow the steps.

  • Rob Reed

    Hi Tom:

    Absolutely not true.

    -Rob,
    Attorney/musician

  • Angie Louise

    I'm about to copyright an album containing 11 of my own songs and 1 cover track. I will own the copyright to the sound recording of the whole album, and the underlying composition of 11 out of the 12 tracks. Can I still copyright the underlying composition of the 11 songs as a collection (instead of having to pay a separate fee for each)? My guess is that I could do both a SR copyright for the sound recording of the whole album, and a PA copyright for the collection of 11 songs (excluding the cover). Does that sound correct? Thanks for your help!

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      Hopefully one of the legal experts reading this thread can weigh in here.

      @ChrisRobley

  • ShaunBlairMusic

    Thank you CD Baby! Once again you show the world why you are one of the leaders for independent music. Reminds me… I need to get my music on CD Baby… LISTEN HERE>> http://www.reverbnation.com/shaunblairmusic

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    That'd be a trademark — and you should definitely register it. Check out http://www.USPTO.gov

    @ChrisRobley

    • Aaron Geis

      Thanks!

  • Cory

    I honestly feel that in today's age, a pile of accounts with your music up and dated by the site combined with a physical dated C.D. with invoice from diskmakers and a cd baby account should be more than enough evidence in a legal battle.

    • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

      It might be enough to prove that you own the copyright, BUT — registering your copyright with the LoC affords you certain minimum protections in the event that a court rules in your favor in an infringement case. So, you might win the case either way, but you'll probably be awarded more in damages if you registered copyright with Library of Congress.

      @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    So — you can (and should) register the copyrights for the sound recording of those new versions (not the composition, as you've already registered those, right?). But you should be able to just put them all on a CD and register them all as one collection. Meaning, you shouldn't have to register it as a formal album meant for distribution in that particular format.

    As for the co-writer questions, I'm not exactly sure — but I'll bet you can find the answer at the LoC's website. And I suspect they'll want you to register one group of ten with one set of co-writers listed for those songs, and then another set of ten songs registered with the other co-writing group info.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Alfred Anthony

    Why is there no mention of Creative Commons in this piece? It is a legal and binding form of copyright registration and it's generally free. I register my music with the Internet Archive.

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley
  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Hey John,

    I'm sorry it's taken this long to respond. I think your comment got buried way down at the bottom of the system we use for moderating blog comments. Anyway, to be certain, I'd recommend checking out the FAQ section of the Library of Congress' copyright website. But my hunch is that you can just send the MP3s, as the lyrics — as sung — are part of the compositions that are evidenced on the recording/s.

    @ChrisRobley

  • Seu

    Hi all.

    We should not confuse CC and copyright protection. CC is all about how to share your creation (which rights you grand and which you dont.). In other words, how do you allow others to use it (or not). Has nothing to do with protection your own copyright. Copyright protection is all about PROOF of ownership. The earlier (in time) and the stronger, the proof, the better.

    my 2 cents.

    Seu

  • digitalguy010

    Yep, ~sigh~…sounds like $35 / song, folks.
    http://www.copyright.gov/eco/help-one.html

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    You own the copyright to all those versions of that song, as soon as they’re set down in a fixed format (recording, notation, etc.). However, you probably should register your copyright with the Library of Congress once you’ve settled on the version that will be heard by the most people.

    @ Chris Robley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Well, you own the copyright on both music and lyrics as soon as they’re fixed in a permanent format. But if you only register the lyrics with the Library of Congress, then only the lyrics will be guaranteed full protection in the event that you win a case where your rights have been infringed upon. You might still win in regards to the music, too, but better that your copyright to BOTH the music and lyrics be registered.

    @ChrisRobley

  • http://diymusician.cdbaby.com/author-chris-robley Christopher Robley

    Well, if by “tune” you mean melody — then yes, that’s copyright-able. But not chord changes. I don’t know how extremely that is translated though. I mean, if you played me the chord changes to Penny Lane with a different melody, I’d instantly recognize it as a Beatles song and feel like McCartney would be owed some money. Some judges might agree, I’m not sure.

    @ChrisRobley