How to Copyright a Song: The Complete Guide

How to Copyright a Song: The Complete Guide How to Copyright a Song: The Complete Guide

Something as simple as forgetting to submit the appropriate paperwork could land you in a copyright infringement lawsuit, or miss out on valuable royalties owed to you as an owner or contributor to a song. It's not the most exciting part of the music production process, but knowing how to copyright your own music is vital for anyone in the music industry.

Below, we'll walk you through how to copyright a song, prove ownership of your music catalog, and register to earn all your pools of royalties. This way, you can retain ownership of your musical works as an independent artist and proactively protect yourself from legal action.

What Is Music Copyright?

Music copyright is a legally binding recognition of ownership of an artist's work. There are two components to music copyright including the composition copyright and sound recording copyright. Your copyright can be attributed to one person like a solo artist, or an entire group of people depending on your arrangement.

Sound Recording Copyright

Sound recording copyright equates to ownership of the track, or master digital recording of song titles. You can expect the sound recording copyright to be owned by a recording artist or a label.

Composition Copyright

Composition copyright belongs to those who are responsible for the composition of a track, meaning the lyrics and musical composition which are considered independent from the master recording of a song.

It's important to note that music copyright is rapidly evolving, especially with the emergence of A.I.-assisted voices, with some artists like Grimes willingly licensing out a copy of her voice model through the portal.

Getting wrapped up in the weeds of modern copyright law can get confusing, but understanding the basics around music copyrights to obtain exclusive rights over your work should be enough to get by for most musicians. Take a listen to Berklee's intellectual property and copyright law professor demystify the basics behind copyright law:

Can I Copyright My Song?

Before we dive into the specifics behind copyrighting your music, it's important to understand what exactly constitutes as a work with copyright owners. In order to generate copyright, a recorded piece of music must be in a fixed format, and clear originality (which is often up to interpretation in several high-profile music copyright litigations.)

An original work must be created as a result of an individual's creative efforts, and should not be "copied" from an already existing work, consciously or subconsciously. A work that's fixed constitutes a piece that can be shared via MP3, Wav file, or sheet music - anything committed to a tangible format that can be perceived without the need for an additional device or machine.

Essentially, you should have a way to prove that you're the owner of the native recording, along with the original recording to eliminate any ambiguity when disputing ownership and origin of your song.

Why Is Copyrighting Your Music Important?

Copyrighting your music protects your intellectual property and overall ownership over your music. Having legal ownership over your composition and sound recording can help deter unauthorized distribution or plagiarism, and gives you legal recourse should other parties violate your copyright.

Having adequate copyright protection over your sound recordings also opens the door to monetization opportunities. With clear copyright protection of your work, you can license out your musical composition to TV shows, films, and other outlets to serve as an additional royalty source.

Music Copyright Versus Artist Royalties

Musical copyright can be understood as the exclusive rights to an audio recording, broken down into sound recording copyright and composition copyright. Copyright is broken down into sound recording copyright and composition copyright as discussed above. Royalties, on the other hand, are payments that are paid out to copyright owners whenever a piece of art is consumed.

The world of music royalties is a complicated one, but you'll want to make sure you're registered to collect mechanical royalties as well as streaming royalties (some distribution platforms will collect and distribute both for you), as well as performance royalties through a performing arts organization or PRO.

We'll outline how to copyright a song and share the basic framework to make sure you're capturing all of your royalty streams below. If you're interested in an in-depth explanation behind the different pools of royalties and how to collect them as an artist, check out this comprehensive deep dive by indie hero Ari's Take:

How to Copyright a Song: 6 Steps

The copyright registration process isn't always straightforward depending on your individual situation, but here are some standard steps you should follow to provide the most protection against copyright infringement from the get-go:

1. Finalize Your Recording and Splits

Simple enough, right? Make sure you're totally ready to put out your track onto public record before releasing it into the world. Once you're set on releasing your track, make sure you double-check with any other recording artists or engineers on your song, confirmed with a splits sheet. A splits sheet should contain all the information you need to properly disseminate royalties, copyright, and give credit where credit is due.

Confirming splits across audio recordings may feel somewhat unnatural at first, but it's much more beneficial to do this upfront to avoid future conflicts, or in extreme cases, a potential copyright infringement lawsuit.

Once you've put out an official recording of previously unpublished works, you've technically created copyright. However, to cement your legal standing, you'll want to continue through the next steps.

2. Timestamp Your Creative Process

In order to prove ownership of your copyright, you need tangible evidence that you were a part of the creation of the original recording. You'll want to timestamp your creative process or create a digital record of the timeline behind your musical work.

One way to do this is to upload your files to a cloud-based site, and email yourself a link with the attached audio file. This way, you'll have a timestamped record of your music. Even if your art is automatically copyrighted upon publishing, the more public records you have, the more likely you are to be protected in the event of a dispute.

Understanding Poor Man's Copyright

Emailing yourself your own files may seem a bit silly, but this copyright protection exists in part thanks to what's known as Poor Man's Copyright. Before digital file sharing was common practice, musicians would mail themselves a copy of their new music in order to have a timestamped record of creation. This practice is still recommended by some music veterans to provide strong evidence and protection of your copyright.

3. Register With The U.S. Copyright Office

The final check to your copyright is to register your works with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registering your copyright comes at a small fee of $45 per song upfront, but note that this proactive fee is a lot cheaper than the legal fees of a heated dispute. Official registration gives you as much leverage as possible to protect you and your work. Note that you'll have to file separate forms for composition and sound recording copyrights.

4. Streaming or Digital Performance Royalties

Whenever your music is streamed on an online platform like Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal, the copyright owner is owed some sort of digital performance royalty. This royalty is typically paid out through your distributor or your label's distributor if you're signed.

5. Earning Mechanical Royalties Through Your Distributor or MLC

Mechanical royalties are due whenever your music is reproduced in any fashion. This could be whenever your song is converted into a tangible form, like on a CD or vinyl. You can also earn these royalties when your song is played on streaming services. While some distribution platforms collect these royalties, some do not. In which case, you'll have to register through the Mechanical Licensing Collective to get your full share of royalties.

6. Earning Performance Royalties Through a PRO

Finally, you'll need to set yourself up to collect performance royalties whenever your music is performed in public whether that's through a live performance, at a restaurant or on the radio. To do this, you'll need to register your music through a performance rights organization who collects these royalties on your behalf.

Some common PROs in the United States include ASCAP and BMI. Note that performance royalties are split 50-50 between songwriters and the composers of the work. If you're responsible for both, you'll have to register for two separate accounts.

Use these tips to properly register your works through a performing rights organization:

Music Copyright FAQ

Are you still finding it challenging to understand the ins and outs of music copyright? Here are some commonly asked questions and answers to help expand your understanding:

How can I legally copyright a song?

You can legally copyright your song by having documented evidence of the creation of your digital and physical sound recording and registering through the USCO assuming you live and work in the United States. Examples of accepted evidence that can help prove your copyright ownership of your sound recording include uploading digital sound recordings, files, or sheet music that can attest to your creation of the work in question.

How much does it cost to copyright your song?

The electronic filing fee for a single recording through the U.S Copyright Office is $45 as of winter of 2023. Filing fees may vary depending on your location, nature of work, and stage of filing as it pertains to your work.

How do I legally copyright my music?

You can legally obtain copyright protection for your work by documenting your creative process with an acceptable timestamped evidence and registered copyright from the U.S Copyright Office. Copyright law is everchanging, but having proper registration upfront gives you the best chance of protecting your work in the future.

How can you prove copyright ownership of the original song?

To prove copyright ownership, you need to show evidence cataloging the capturing of a sound into a digital or physical recording within the context of a recorded timeline. Ideally, this is done through records registered through the United States Copyright Office or USCO.

It might not be the most exciting part of the process, but learning the art of copyright registration is essential to protect your work as a songwriter, producer, or publisher. Use this guide to ensure you register appropriately for both the composition and sound recording rights to your work.

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