Updated on September 13th, 2019
Copyright talk can get extremely confusing.
This is my attempt to keep things simple and give you a practical step-by-step guide you can follow to protect your songs.
By the end of this post you will:
- Understand why music copyright is important.
- Make the difference between copyright ownership and copyright registration.
- Figure out if you need to register your music copyright or not.
- Know how to copyright a song online (recording and lyrics).
- See how to copyright a full album in a fast, affordable and efficient way.
- Understand why free copyright registration options are useless.
Let’s get right into it.
1- Why Is Copyright Important?
It’s how you make money!
The people who own the copyright of a composition and sound recording are the people who determine what can be done with that music.
They are also the people who get paid when that song or sound recording is performed, reproduced or sold in pretty much any shape or form.
In other words, the copyright owners are the ones who make decisions and make money.
If you need a quick reminder of the distinction between a composition and a sound recording, head over here.
2- Do I Need To Copyright My Music?
Depends what you mean by “copyright”….
As long as it’s original, your music is copyrighted as soon as you write it down or record it on a tangible medium. On paper or in an audio file for example.
There’s nothing else you need to do to become the proud owner of a music copyright!
If someone else ever copies your music without your authorization, maybe you’ll want to file a suit for copyright infringement.
At this point, I’m assuming you’re not interested in pursuing negotiations outside of court and you have the money to advance legal fees 😉
For Works of Non-U.S. Origin
Chances are you can go ahead and sue even if you didn’t register your music with the U.S. Copyright Office.
You are most likely protected by the Berne Convention and should be ok as long as you can provide evidence of when you created the original work in the first place.
As I write this in January 2019, Wikipedia tells me there are 176 signatory countries to the Berne Convention out of 195 countries in the world.
Having said that, it can’t hurt to ask your local Performance Rights Organization about copyright best practices in your part of the world.
For Works of U.S. Origin
Registration with the U.S. Copyright office is mandatory if you want to enforce your exclusive rights of copyright on a work that was created in the U.S. and/or by a U.S. national.
In addition, in order to be eligible for statutory damages and attorneys’ fees, your music must be registered PRIOR to the infringement or within three months after publication.
3- Should You Copyright Your Music?
Arguments AGAINST Copyright Registration
- it’s boring;
- it takes time away from your music;
- you have to pay copyright registration fees;
- there are other ways to establish the creation date of your work;
- you might not even need it!
Arguments IN FAVOR OF Copyright Registration
- you can register your entire catalogue in one go and be done with it;
- you’ll get an official document that dates your work;
- it’s only $55 to copyright an album online ($35 to copyright a song);
- you’ll probably hate yourself if you don’t do it and end up needing it….
Whatever you decide, decide and roll with it!
Copyright registration is fairly straightforward and affordable (see video tutorial below). Please don’t use it as an excuse to keep your music locked away from the outside world…..
4- How To Copyright A Song? ($35 Online)
Again, let’s be precise and specify that we’re REGISTERING a song with the U.S. Copyright Office here.
Your copyright ownership is established as soon as you write down or record the song.
Copyright owners can register their copyrights. They don’t have to.
As a side note, registering your song with a Performance Rights Organization is something entirely separate. Make sure you do that so you get paid when your composition is performed in public!
How Do You Register A Song With The U.S. Copyright Office?
Step 1 – you head over to the U.S. Copyright Office’s website and create an account with them. That’s free.
Step 2 – decide what copyright you want to register:
— A composition? You’ll need a performing arts application.
— A sound recording? You’ll need a sound recording application.
— Both??? No problem!
Let me show you exactly how you can register both your sound recordings and the underlying compositions with just one application form….
5- How To Copyright Multiple Songs In One Go
Published vs Unpublished Works, an Important Update
Since March 15th 2019, the U.S. Copyright Office has TWO processes in place to register a collection of songs and sound recordings.
One for works that have already been published.
Another for works that remain unpublished at the time of registration.
If you use the wrong form, the U.S. Copyright may refuse your application, meaning you will have wasted time and money.
So you better make sure you know the difference between published and unpublished works…
What Does the U.S. Copyright Office Say?
“In general, a work is published when an authorized copy is sold or offered for distribution to the public.” – circular 7b
“for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display” – circular 1
“A public performance or display of a musical composition does not, in and of itself, constitute publication” – circular 50
– Sources accessed on September 13th 2019
What Does That Mean?
It means your work is published when…
♦ The work is available to the public. For free or for sale, doesn’t matter.
♦ You authorized that public availability.
♦ Your intention was that the work would be shared with others and further distributed.
Now that’s clear, let’s have a look at the TWO processes in place to register collections of songs (e.g. an album) all in one-go.
Option A – Group Registration of PUBLISHED musical works
If you want to register a full album of music that’s already been published, you’ll want to use a Standard Application form to register your sound recordings and the underlying compositions.
Here’s how you do it.
Option B – Group Registration of UNPUBLISHED musical works
On March 15th, 2019, the U.S. Copyright Office made changes to how we can register a “collection” of UNPUBLISHED works.
If you want to register a full album of UNPUBLISHED works all in one go, you must now use a new form for “Group Unpublished Works”.
The following tutorial was prepared by the U.S. Copyright Office to explain this new procedure.