how to copyright a song

CD Baby is not able to provide you with legal advice or make legal conclusions about your circumstances. We urge you to consult with an attorney. Please see this article for information about legal support for indie musicians. 

Ownership of your music copyright gives you leverage, protection, and power when it comes to making money from your music catalog.

In this article, we’ll cover the definition of music copyright, why it’s important for independent musicians, and how to copyright your music as a songwriter or artist to earn money.

What is music copyright?  

Copyright is a creator’s right to copy, profit from, and distribute their own work. It’s a designation of intellectual property similar to a patent or trademark. As a musician, you own the copyright to your own songs and recordings the moment they’re in a fixed format (recorded, written on sheet music, etc.). 


However, you won’t receive enhanced, critical benefits — like the ability to file a federal copyright infringement lawsuit or make a claim with the Copyright Claims Board — unless you’ve registered with the U.S. Copyright Office beforehand. Once you register, you may be entitled to $150,000 per infringement, plus legal fees if you win your suit.

If you created a song by yourself, you’re the only one that owns the composition. But if you created a song with a producer, session players, or other music industry professionals, you each own a portion of that song. How much does each person own, though? That’s up to all of you to determine as a group. 

Keep in mind that paying someone for their work doesn’t mean that they can’t claim any ownership of your copyright later. Under U.S. Copyright Law, two or more people that work together to create content can claim equal ownership shares by default, unless there’s an agreement stating otherwise. So, if you write the majority of a song, but someone helps you with the lyrics to a few lines, they could claim that their rights are equal to yours. 

The best way to avoid tricky situations like this is to meet with your collaborators and write up a document determining the splits (the percentage of the song each person owns), and then register your copyright according to that agreement.

As you get acquainted with the copyright process, it’s important to note that the U.S. Copyright Office may add new application types and change federal filing fees. Services like Cosynd can automatically determine the correct application type and federal filing fee so you don’t have to.  

Make sure you have a solid understanding of copyright basics, such as:

Debunking myths like the “poor man’s copyright.” 

You may have heard about artists sending copies of their work to themselves via certified mail, or you might have done it yourself at one time or another. The idea was that you would let the government do the work of dating the creation of your work with a federal postmark, and the unsealed package could provide enough leverage to file a lawsuit if your music was stolen or misused — but this method is obsolete in the U.S.

The two types of music copyright.
Composition copyrights (music and lyrics), are usually owned by songwriters or publishers, and sound recording copyrights (a recorded version of music and lyrics), are typically owned by recording artists or labels. If you write and record your songs, you’ve got two copyrights under your belt.

how to copyright your music

A song can only have one composition copyright, but can have an infinite number of sound recording copyrights — for example, if someone covers your song, they need to get permission to use your composition copyright, but if they do get permission, they will create their own sound recording copyright for the cover.

Your exclusive rights.
As a copyright owner, you get six exclusive rights the moment your song is in a tangible form (e.g. written down or recorded). If someone else wants to do any of the things below, they need to get permission from you — and, in most cases, pay a fee. Only you have the right to: 

  • Create copies of your song
  • Distribute it
  • Make derivatives
  • Display it
  • Perform the composition
  • Perform the sound recording

Copyright infringement rules.
There is no rule in copyright law that sets a minimum standard for infringement, which means that even a five-second sample could be a no-go. Using a popular song, or the hook of a song, will put you at an even greater risk of penalty from infringement than using a lesser-known song or section of a song. It’s best to play it safe and get permission for any copyrighted material you use. 

What can and can’t be copyrighted.
For the most part, no musician can copyright the basic building blocks of music composition, such as chord progressions, drum beats, overall concepts, and song titles. Imagine how difficult it would be to write music if someone had a standard chord progression like I, IV, V copyrighted! If this were the case, thousands of incredible songs would never have been made.

How record labels affect copyright.
If you work with a label, there’s a good chance the label controls the copyright to recordings, at least for a certain amount of time. Read your contract or speak to a label representative to figure out what you and your label agreed on. Remember, a written agreement always provides better legal protection than a verbal agreement.

How do I register my music?


Registering with the U.S. Copyright Office is one of the most important actions you can take to protect your music, and you should do it shortly before or after any release. Just keep in mind that Copyright Office registration can be a lengthy, complex process.

There are services that can handle all the heavy lifting for you, though. We partnered with Cosynd because of their user-friendly interface, fast processing times, and useful features. Unlike other services, Cosynd lets you register multiple songs on one application — plus, they’re 80% less expensive than companies with similar offerings.

You can register:

  • The full legal name and addresses of the owners of your copyright, and any co-authors
  • The year of completion, release date (if your music is out), and the nation in which your copyrights were released
  • Audio files, if you’re registering sound recordings 
  • Lyric and chord sheets, if you’re registering compositions

Cosynd asks a series of questions to determine the best way for them to file registrations on your behalf, so you won’t need to learn about the various application types ahead of time. If you do register your music copyright directly with the Copyright Office, though, you’ll want to file:

Different application types should be used depending on if your music is released, unreleased, or has multiple authors. But what if you want to register both the sound recording and the composition? According to, you can use Form SR to register both — as long as the author, owner, and release info are the same for all songs listed on the application.

As an FYI, you don’t have to be a certain age to copyright your music. However, most copyright transactions are governed by state law, and state music copyright law can differ from federal law in terms of what minors can and can’t do with their copyright.

What options do I have if I want to file a lawsuit? 

If your content is stolen or misused, you might want to take legal action. The first question you’ll likely be asked is, “Did you register with the Copyright Office?” If the answer is yes, you already have a lot of leverage to bring into court.

There are two places where you can file a lawsuit for infringement: federal court and small claims court. To take advantage of either option, you have to register with the Copyright Office first (generally before the infringement happens, if you’re aiming for the highest possible reward).

Here’s an overview of what you can expect from each court process:

  • Federal Court. In-person participation is mandatory for you and your infringer. Creators that win their case in federal court could earn between $750 and $150,000 per infringement. But keep in mind that federal court requires an attorney, which costs an average of six figures per court case.
  • Small Claims Court. The Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act of 2019 (the CASE Act) established a voluntary small claims court within the Copyright Office. Small claims court is an easy, accessible, and affordable option for all copyright owners to reduce legal expenses. Three judges on the Copyright Claims Board (CCB) try cases virtually, and creators can represent themselves rather than hiring an attorney. Copyright owners could recover up to $30,000 per case, with a cap of $15,000 per work infringement.

How can copyright help me make money from my music?

Music copyright grants exclusive rights to the owner or owners, including the right to earn money from that intellectual property. This is called “exploiting” your copyright (but don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you’re a sellout. It’s how you earn money from the hard work you put into writing your song).

How do I collect performance royalties?

As a songwriter, any time your song is played in public, it generates a performance royalty for the underlying composition, and you have the right to collect them. Performance royalties are owed to the songwriter and publisher whenever a song is:

  • Played on digital or satellite radio (and on the radio outside of the U.S.)
  • Played in a restaurant, bar, etc.
  • Performed in public

Don’t forget to register with a performing rights organization (PRO) that collects performance royalties. PROs monitor radio stations and venues for public uses of your song. There are three major PROs (and a few smaller ones) in the U.S.:

  • BMI

You can affiliate yourself as a songwriter with the first two directly. If you don’t live in the U.S., check out this list of international PROs.

Did you know that you can also earn performance royalties by playing your own songs live? Venues should be paying fees to the PROs to cover these royalties, and each PRO gives you a way to register your live sets. When you’re on tour, make sure to log all of the venues you played, and keep track of your setlists so you can register those shows once you’re home. 

Just keep a quirk about performance royalties in mind: they’re only generated for songwriters and publishers. PROs don’t pay any revenue to recording artists.

How do I collect mechanical royalties?

When you own the rights to a sound recording, you control the master rights, and have the ability to grant a master license. If your composition is reproduced in any medium, you’re owed a separate type of royalty called a mechanical royalty. These are the royalties that PROs like ASCAP and BMI do NOT collect. There are two types of mechanical royalties: one for your recording, and one for your composition.

You might have heard of mechanical royalties in relation to selling your music in a physical format, such as CDs and vinyls, but digital formats also generate mechanicals. That’s because when someone streams your music on a service like Spotify, or when they buy a download from a store like Amazon Music, your composition is technically being recreated.

Mechanical royalties are reported by streaming and download platforms to the royalty collection society in the country or territory where the stream or download happened. Almost every country has an agency to collect these royalties.

The U.S. has the Harry Fox Agency (HFA), but the country is unique in that mechanical royalties from downloads are bundled with revenue from the sound recording, so they’ll be paid to you through your music distributor (if you use CD Baby, that’s us!).

Note that this doesn’t apply to interactive streams though; in every country, mechanical royalties generated by interactive streaming are paid to collection societies.

Can I collect mechanical royalties for my composition on my own? 

Technically, you can, but it’s difficult and time-consuming. Mechanical royalties are only payable to publishers, so you’re not able to collect them as a songwriter. To make things more complicated, it’s hard for most independent songwriters to register with HFA as a publisher, because you’d need to have a sizable catalog of songs to do so. 

If you sign up for CDB Boost, we register your music with the Mechanical Licensing Collective (The MLC) so you can earn mechanical royalties related to your composition whenever your songs are streamed in the U.S.

We played a part in a successful push to increase the mechanical royalty rate owed for interactive streaming through the Music Modernization Act of 2017, which increased their payouts to 15.1% of total revenue earned, and we’re always looking for more ways to go to bat for independent artists.

Since all music revenue streams are constantly in flux, it’s important to learn and take advantage of all of your potential streams of income as a musician.

How do I collect digital performance royalties?

Don’t miss out on additional revenue streams for your music by skipping over this type of royalty! If your song is played on what’s called “non-interactive” streaming and satellite radio stations like SiriusXM and Pandora, you’re entitled to receive digital performance royalties as well.

There’s only one way for artists to collect them: SoundExchange. We register sound recordings from artists that sign up for CDB Boost with SoundExchange, and get these musicians paid when royalties are generated.

What if someone wants to record my song?

Let’s say your composition and sound recording are registered, your song is out there in the world, and someone hears it and falls in love. They happen to be a musician themselves, and they want to record their own version. Great! Imagine they want to release a cover of your song legally. Even better!

This artist has an easy way to secure the rights to record their cover. Any original song that is commercially released can be licensed for 9.1 cents per copy. This is called a compulsory license, meaning that as long as this artist pays you that mechanical licensing fee (typically through HFA), they have the legal right to record their interpretation.

Even if it’s a death metal cover of an acoustic love ballad, as long as they pay the compulsory fee, the cover artist is protected. Whether you love or dislike their interpretation, the same laws that protect you from copyright infringement also protect other artists’ creative visions. It’s the circle of life via capitalism (and it moves us all).

What if someone wants to use my recording?

Unlike licensing for a cover song, this is something artists, songwriters, and/or labels have complete control over, because ALL samples, no matter how short or long, must be legally licensed.

The person seeking to use some portion of your recording in their own recording must contact you (or the rights holder to your audio, if you signed an agreement with a label) to ask for permission. The rights holder can either approve or deny the use of your music in a sample. 

If you’re an independent artist, you’ll have control over your sound recording copyright, and if you approve of the use, you can negotiate the fee the other party will need to pay to secure the right to use your recording. If you hold the rights to both the composition and the sound recording, you can grant permission for the use of both.

How do I get into sync licensing?

There’s another type of exploitation that relates to the use of your song in a movie, TV show, or a similar media form. This is called sync licensing, since your music is synchronized with the visual medium

Similar to sampling, a music supervisor with the production company who wants to use your song has to contact the rights holder, or license the song from a music library, if you chose to add your song to one. 

If a music supervisor contacts you directly, you can negotiate a fee with them. If your music is included in a music library, the agency or company that manages the library can negotiate terms on your behalf.

Here’s a tip: If you hold the rights to the composition AND the recording, you can grant permission for both in one agreement, which is appealing to music supervisors who need to move fast to secure songs on a tight production schedule.

An upfront placement fee is one type of revenue generated from a sync deal. After the placement is secured and the show or movie has aired, you are also owed performance royalties each time your song is played in that medium — as long as the music supervisor files the cue sheets.

Sync licensing also applies to YouTube videos of cover songs. For instance, if a YouTuber records a cover of your song and wants to post the video, the mechanical license they acquired to distribute a recording of that song does not cover them for that video. They’d also need to secure a sync license from you.

But, let’s be clear: MOST people on YouTube are not getting sync licenses for the music they use. That’s why YouTube developed Content ID. When a YouTuber doesn’t clear sync rights with you directly, they can upload their video and allow YouTube to place a claim on their video via Content ID.

This works for recordings, too. If someone uses your track in their wedding highlights video, you’ll earn ad revenue. That’s why it’s important to know how to manage copyrights on YouTube.


If you opted in for Social Video Monetization with us, we’ll send your song to YouTube and add it to their Content ID database. That will automatically catch any use of your song in a video and monetize it accordingly. YouTube ads create revenue as well, so even if an artist doesn’t get a sync license from you, you’ll still be earning money from their video that way.

How much should I worry about copyright infringement when it comes to my music career?

That was a LOT of information, and it probably all sounds a bit overwhelming. If it does, we completely understand. We talk to artists every day, and often hear that they’re afraid to share their music because they’re worried about copyright infringement, or concerned that someone could steal their music.

Here’s the bottom line, though: Most people would prefer to do things legally instead of risking having to go to court over copyright infringement. Songs do get stolen sometimes, but it’s more important to be heard than to let fear prevent you from ever releasing music in the first place.

There’s always risks when you share your music with the world. But when you secure and maintain copyrights and registrations for all of your songs, you can feel much more confident every time you put yourself out there.

Now that you know more about music copyright, it’s time to make earnings from all your hard work! Here are a couple of services to help you navigate the wild world of music copyright:

  • Cosynd is the easiest way to register your copyrights.
  • If you use CDB Boost, we’ll register your music with SoundExchange and The MLC and help you earn mechanical royalties. We’ll also add your songs to our music library for potential sync licensing placements on networks like HBO, FX, NBC, and Showtime.


CD Baby is not able to provide you with legal advice or make legal conclusions about your circumstances. We urge you to consult with an attorney. Please see this article for information about legal support for indie musicians.