a woman singing into a mic and a dj, with a copyright symbol

Music Copyright 101: How to copyright your music and compositions as an artist, songwriter, or producer

As an independent musician, you own your songs and recordings. It’s YOUR intellectual property.

That might seem obvious, but it’s worth repeating: YOU control the copyright to the songs you write and the recordings you create. 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 provide an overview of what music copyright is, how to copyright your music, and how you can use your copyright as a songwriter or artist to earn money.

What is music copyright?

Copyright signifies the ownership of intellectual property by a person or group.

Music copyright also grants certain exclusive rights to the owner(s), one of the most important being the right to earn money from that intellectual property. This is called “exploiting” your copyright. We’ll get into that more later.

Music copyright designates the ownership of a particular song or recording

If you create a recording yourself, or if you pay for studio time and session fees, you own that sound recording. If you work with a label, there’s a good chance the label controls the copyright to the recording — at least for some set duration.

If you wrote a song by yourself, you alone own that composition. If you wrote a song with one or more people, you each own a portion of that song. You and your collaborators would then want to draft a document determining the splits (the percentage of the song each person owns), and register your copyright accordingly. 

There are two types of music copyright

There are two types of music copyright:

  1. The composition  — which is the music and lyrics
  2. The sound recording  — which is a particular recorded version of that music and lyrics

Compositions are usually owned by songwriters and/or publishers. Sound recordings are usually owned by artists or labels.

The two main types of copyright for music

When do you own your copyright?

In the strictest technical terms, you own your musical copyright the moment you capture the composition or recording in a fixed medium. This could be something as simple as writing the melody or lyrics on a piece of paper or humming into a recorder.

However, registering your copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office entitles you to enhanced benefits. Most important of all, in a groundbreaking ruling, the Supreme Court has mandated that registration with the USCO is required before you can file a lawsuit and registering early can earn you $150,000 plus attorney fees per deliberate infringement – but only if you register early on.

Does the “poor man’s music copyright” actually count as proof?

The “poor man’s copyright” is a useless and ill-advised method for proving copyright. This is where a musician emails or sends a copy of the composition or recording to themselves via certified mail, leaving the package sealed with the date clearly marked on the outside. 

The idea was that you would let the government do the work of dating the creation of the work with the federal postmark and that could provide you with enough leverage to file a lawsuit if your music was ever stolen or misused. However, this practice is now obsolete. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that you must register with the U.S. Copyright Office before you can file a lawsuit. The poor man’s copyright does not grant you this right and and does not afford you nearly the same protections as an official copyright registration.

Why would I want to register my copyright?

When your content is stolen or misused, your first thought may be to take legal action. The first question you may be asked is, “Did you register with the Copyright Office?”  That’s because when you register, you have the ultimate leverage.

According to updated regulations, you must register with the U.S. Copyright Office before you can file a lawsuit. Other types of registrations or mailing your music to yourself are not substitutes for USCO registration. Early registration can grant you a large payout – up to $150,000 per infringement PLUS your legal fees, but only if you register before your music is stolen or misused.

Registering Now Registering After Your Music Is Stolen/Misused
You can file lawsuits immediately in federal court or small claims court (no attorney required).

Receive up to $150,000 PLUS attorney fees per willful infringement.

Can’t file a lawsuit until you have received your official registration from the USCO. 

(normally 3-9 months)

Receive up to $200-$30,000 

per work (barely enough to cover legal fees). 

Registering with the U.S. Copyright Office is one of the most important actions you can take and it’s something that you should want to do shortly after or before your music is released.

A registered work is your only ticket into court and it will carry a lot more weight than a sealed package, a Soundcloud link, or beer-soaked napkin. 

In the USA, you’d want to register your copyright with the US Copyright Office, part of the Library of Congress.

How to register a copyright for your songs

If you want to legally register a copyright for your music in the USA, you’ll need to do that directly with the Copyright Office, or you can use Cosynd, a service that handles all the heavy lifting for you.

The advantage of using Cosynd is it’s much more user-friendly than the numerous steps involved when you register directly with the Copyright Office. CD Baby partnered with Cosynd over other companies who offer similar services because their interface is easy to navigate, their process is quick, and they’re efficient and professional every step of the way.

Compared to other services, Cosynd lets you register multiple songs on one application – some services only let you register one at a time. Most important of all, Cosynd is 80% less expensive compared to similar services.

Here are the things you’ll need to register your copyright using Cosynd:

  • The full legal names and country of citizenship/domicile of your co-authors
  • The full legal name and addresses of the owners of your copyright
  • The year of completion, date of of release (if released), and the nation of in which your copyrights were released.
  • Audio files if you are registering your sound recordings. Audio files or lyric/chord sheets if you are registering just your compositions.

Cosynd asks you a series of questions to determine the best way for them to file your registrations on your behalf. You won’t need to learn about the various application types ahead of time.

For more on how to register your copyright, head here.

If you’re registering your music copyright directly with the U.S. Copyright Office by yourself, you’ll want to file:

Be sure to read all of the Copyright Office’s circulars on the applications types first – if your music is released, unreleased, or varied in authors there are different applications types that should be used (again, when you use Cosynd, they automatically determine the right type of application to use when filing your registration, so you don’t have to think about this).

What about if you want to register both the sound recording and the composition? See below.

Which copyright form should you file for your music

According to copyright.gov, you can use ONE form (SR) to register both the sound recording AND composition, as long as the author and owner are exactly the same for all songs listed on the application and the release information is the same.

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 author and claimant is the same for both the sound recording and the underlying work.

How old do I have to be to copyright my music?

There is no age requirement to copyright your music. However, while copyrights are governed by federal law, most copyright transactions are governed by state law. State law can differ from federal law in what minors can and cannot do with their copyright. This includes certain changes that can occur in some states when the individual who owns the copyright turns 18. CD Baby’s Joel Andrew explains these rules in his copyright article.

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

There are two places where you can file a lawsuit for infringement – in federal court and soon, in small claims court. To take advantage of either option, you must register with the Copyright Office first, generally before the infringement happens if you want to get the highest possible reward.

  • Federal Court – You can file your lawsuit in federal court. If you do so, participation is mandatory for you and your infringer. Creators that can win their case in federal court could earn $750-$150,000 per infringement. Litigating a case in federal court from start to finish requires an attorney costs an average of six figures. A more affordable option via small claims court exists (see below).
  • Small Claims Court – The Copyright Alternative in Small–Claims Enforcement Act of 2019 (the CASE Act) established a voluntary small claims court within the U.S. Copyright Office. It will be accessible to creators at the end of 2021. Small claims court is an easy, accessible, and affordable option for all copyright owners to file claims of infringement and other grievances and reduce legal expenses. A Copyright Claims Board (CCB) comprised of three judges will try cases virtually (copyright owners will not have to appear physically in person in a federal court). Creators can represent themselves and do not need to hire an attorney. Copyright owners could recover up to $30,000 per case, with a cap of $15,000 in statutory damages per work infringed. Guest blogger Jessica Sobhraj wrote this informative article about the implications of the CASE Act.

How do I make money from a sound recording?

When you own the rights to a sound recording, you control the “master rights” and can grant a master license. Royalties that flow from the granting of a master license include streaming and download revenues associated with the recording, from platforms like Spotify, Amazon, Apple Music, Deezer, etc.

You also can grant permissions for sync licensing and sampling of your recording. (More on those topics below).

Outside of the United States, you’re owed royalties when your track is played on the radio; inside the US you’re owed royalties when your track is played on digital or satellite radio. (More on that below too).

Lastly, as the owner of a recording you can press and sell physical formats such as vinyl and CDs.

How do I make money from my composition copyright?

Once you’ve registered your music copyright, it’s time to exploit that copyright. Exploitation may have negative connotations in other parts of society, but in the music business it’s how you earn money from the hard work you put in to writing your song.

Performance Royalties

As a songwriter, you have the right to collect publishing royalties for the usage of your song. One such revenue stream is performance royalties, owed to the songwriter and publisher whenever a song is:

  • spun on the radio
  • performed in public
  • played in a restaurant, bar, etc.

As a songwriter, you’ll want to register with an agency that collects performance royalties. These agencies are called performing rights organizations (PROs).

We have three major PROs (and a few smaller ones) in the U.S.:

  • BMI
  • ASCAP
  • SESAC

You can affiliate yourself as a songwriter with the first two directly, or by using our publishing administration service CD Baby Pro Publishing. With CD Baby Pro Publishing, we’ll affiliate you with BMI or ASCAP (your choice), and register your songs with them. SESAC is invite only and represents far fewer songwriters. If you’re outside the USA, see this list of international PROs and collection societies.

The job of these PROs is to monitor radio stations and venues for public use of your song. Any time your song is played in public it generates a performance royalty for the underlying composition, and as the songwriter for that composition, you’re entitled to the performance royalty.

You can also earn performance royalties by playing your songs live. The 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 set-lists so you can register those shows when you’re home! A curious quirk about performance royalties is that they’re only generated for songwriters and their publishers; the PROs do not pay any revenue to recording artists.

Mechanical Royalties

When your composition is reproduced in any medium you are owed a separate type of royalty called a mechanical royalty.

These are royalties that PROs like ASCAP and BMI do NOT collect.

You might have heard of mechanical royalties as they relate to the manufacturing of physical formats such as CD, vinyl, and cassettes. But digital formats also generate mechanicals. When someone streams your music on a service like Spotify or Apple Music, or when they buy a download from a store like iTunes, your composition is technically being recreated. Yes, even though — in the case of streaming — it’s a temporary reproduction.

These mechanical royalties are reported by the streaming and download platforms to the royalty collection society in the country or territory where the stream or download happened.

In the U.S. we have the Harry Fox Agency; but almost every country has a similar agency to collect mechanical royalties. The U.S. is unique in that mechanicals from downloads are bundled in with the revenue from the sound recording. So those will be paid to you through your music distributor. This does not apply to interactive streams though; in every country, mechanical royalties generated by interactive streaming are paid to collection societies. 

Why can’t you collect mechanical royalties on your own?

Technically you could, but it’s very 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 very difficult for most independent songwriters to register with Harry Fox as a publisher because you’d need to have a sizable catalog of songs. Luckily, CD Baby is here to act as your publishing administrator and make all this super simple. If you sign up for Pro Publishing we’ll register your songs with collection societies worldwide and help you collect ALL your publishing royalties. 

Streaming generates significant mechanical royalties, and you’re about to earn even more.

CD Baby played a part in recent successful efforts to increase the mechanical royalty rate owed for interactive streaming. Streaming services are now required to increase their payouts to songwriters and publishers each year through 2022, when the rate will reach 15.1% of total revenue earned.

That’s a 44% hike in the royalty rate.

This is a big win for songwriters, so it’s more important than ever to professionalize your rights as a composer or lyricist.

What royalties am I owed as an artist?

If you’re the recording artist on a song, there ARE royalties you can earn, but they’re collected and paid differently from publishing royalties. Like we covered above, artists in the USA are not entitled to royalties from terrestrial radio airplay, but satellite radio and Internet radio is entirely different.

If your song is played on Pandora or on a satellite radio station, this generates a different type of royalty for the usage and creation of the sound recording — think of it as a digital performance royalty. This type of royalty is only owed to recording artists and sound-recording rights holders (ie. the record label). And unlike the multitude of PROs in the U.S., there’s only one game in town for artists to register and collect those royalties: Soundexchange.

Register your songs with them and let the Pandora cash start to flow!

What if someone wants to record my song?

Thus far we’ve covered the use of your song in traditional, satellite and Internet radio airplay, but there’s yet another way to exploit your copyright. Let’s say your composition and sound recording is registered and 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 of your song. Great! And they want to release a cover of your song legally. Even better!

The good news is this person has an easy avenue through which to obtain the rights to record their interpretation of your composition. Any original song that is commercially released is eligible to be licensed for the rate of 9.1 cents per copy. This is called a compulsory license, meaning that as long as this mystery person pays you that mechanical licensing fee (normally through the Harry Fox Agency), they have the legal right to record their interpretation, which is called a “cover song” in the business.

That may or may not be more good news, but whether you approve or disapprove of a death metal cover of your acoustic love ballad, as long as they pay the compulsory fee the artist is protected. The same laws that protect you from copyright infringement also protect artists’ creative vision, no matter how amazing or absurd. It’s the circle of life via capitalism.

What if someone wants to use my actual recording?

Now, there are two more types of exploitation we haven’t talked about, and they both relate to someone who wants to use your music in their own song. If someone wants to use your sound recording in their own track, that’s called a sample. Unlike licensing for a cover song, this is something you have control over as the recording artist, songwriter, or label — 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 permission. The rights holder (YOU) 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 this use you can negotiate the fee the other party would 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.

Sync licensing

The second type of exploitation of your recording or composition happens when someone uses it in other media such as a movie or TV show. This is called sync licensing, since your music is synchronized with the visual medium

Much like the case with sampling, the music supervisor with the production company who is seeking to use your song must contact the rights holder or license the song from a music library if you chose to add your song to one. If they contact you for this you can negotiate a fee with them. As in the case with clearing a sample, if you hold the rights to both 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. If your music is included in a music library, that agency can negotiate the terms of the license on your behalf. 

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

Sync rights kinda sorta apply to YouTube too!

Sync licensing also applies to YouTube videos of cover songs. So 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 the video. They’ll 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 some YouTube sensation doesn’t want to clear the sync rights with you directly, they can upload their video and allow YouTube to place a claim on their video via Content ID.

And this doesn’t just work for cover songs, but your recordings too. If someone put your track behind their wedding highlights video, you’ll earn ad revenue.

If you opted in for Social Video Monetization with CD Baby we’ll send your song to YouTube and add it into their Content ID database. That will automatically catch any use of your song in a video and monetize it accordingly. YouTube ads can add up to real revenue, so even if this person does not clear the sync license, you’ll be earning money from their video. 

Closing thoughts

Now that you know the WHAT, HOW, and WHY of music copyright, it’s time to make some money from your hard work! Luckily, CD Baby has a number of services that can help you navigate the wide world of copyright we’ve discussed above:

  • Cosynd The easiest way to register your copyright.
  • CD Baby Pro Worldwide publishing administration and royalty collection.
  • Sync licensing We’ll add your songs to our music library for possible placement on networks like HBO, FX, NBC, SHOWTIME, and many more.

RELEASE MUSIC WORLDWIDE