Occasionally, you hear about an artist getting taken to court over a copyright violation. Some famous cases that stick out in my mind are Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” and Robin Thicke’s “Got To Give It Up”.
These cases always make me cringe a little, because I can imagine being on either side. Sometimes, it’s possible to unconsciously imitate another song, which you then record, only to find out you’re in violation of copyright law, and end up having to take the song down or get sued. That would be awful.
On the other hand, if suddenly you’re hearing your song being payed everywhere… except it’s not your song – it’s another artist’s take on a song you wrote, that would be infuriating. So, copyright law is extremely important, because it protects the works you create.
If you’ve been wondering how copyright law works for artists and how to copyright a song, look no further. I’ll give you rundown of how copyright law affects your career.
Please note that this is based on my limited understanding as a layman. This should not be taken as legal advice. You can get more info on copyright for music here.
But first, if it's your aim to do music professionally, you'll want to check out our free ebook while it's still available:
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How To Register Your Song For Copyright – Quick Guide
There’s a ton of valuable information on copyright in this guide, but first, I’ll tell you how to register your copyright. That’s probably what you came here for anyways.
First, it’s important to understand that your song is copyrighted from the moment it is conceived. All you’re doing is registering your song with the copyright office. And all that means is you’re submitting evidence of the date of copyright.
The people at the copyright office don’t listen to every submission. They probably don’t listen to any submissions! Submitting the music is simply acknowledging the date of its creation.
In the United States, you can visit U.S. Copyright Office to register a copyright. On this website, you’ll be able to print forms off to mail in a copyright, or you can submit your music online Simply click the Register button on the website to begin the process.
You can submit a bunch of songs at one time (i.e. your whole album, or whole discography) to avoid paying more fees than necessary. Check the copyright office website for up-to-date fees, but last time I checked it was around $40 per submission.
You should also be aware that there are two forms you can use when copyrighting your music; the SR and the PA. SR stands for Sound Recording, and PA stands for Performing Arts.
The Sound Recording form is not for the underlying work, it is only to register a specific set of sounds. For example, if you recorded a cover song, you could register a copyright for your version or that song. You own that recording.
But in a case like that, you do not own the song. The artist who wrote the song would have hopefully used the PA form to register the copyright for the underlying work.
When you want to register a song or a group of songs, obtain the proper form from the copyright website, put together a package with a non-returnable copy of the song, your payment, the filled -out form, and anything else you want to submit (sheet music, etc.). Then, send your package to the U.S Copyright Office.
And you’re done. It’s not hard, it just takes a little bit of time.
Registering Your Copyright In Other Countries
The steps required to register a copyright in Canada are much the same as in the U.S. You can register your songs with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office by filling out a form. You can also register your songs with SOCAN, the Canadian Performing Rights Organization.
In the U.K., you don’t even need to register your song. You can keep a record of the song with your lawyer or your bank, who will provide you with a dated receipt. Then, you can store that away with your personal copy of the song.
Remember that songs are copyrighted as soon as you create them. Registering them only confirms the date that they were created.
If you’re planning to register your song in countries beyond the ones mentioned, be sure to look up governing entities in your locality.
The Berne Convention
The United States has very strong copyright protection for artists. To start with, the United States (as well as Canada and the U.K.) are signatories to the Berne Convention. This means that as soon as you write a song, you own the copyright.
As soon as a song is written, it’s copyright is born. If there is more than one writer, the copyright is split up in the agreed upon way. If there is a publishing company involved, then the copyright is split up depending on how your agreement with the company was formed.
The U.S. is one of the only countries that signed the Berne Convention, which allows you to easily register the contents of a song (melody, lyrics, chords). In most countries, only the title of the song is recorded when registering the song, even though the entirety of the song is covered by copyright.
In short, your song is copyrighted as soon as you make it. But registering the song gives you an added layer of protection.
It’s worth noting that your copyright is protected for the entire life of the author, plus 70 years. All works published before 1923 are public domain (meaning anyone can use them), and all works published from 1923 to 1978 are copyrighted for 95 years from the date of publication.
What Is A Copyright?
It’s important to have a basic understanding of what a copyright is. The term is already ambiguous, so its meaning can easily become muddled.
A copyright is made up of different kinds of rights: The right to produce or copy the music, the mechanical rights to the music, the performing rights to the music.
In layman’s terms, when you create a song, you own the rights to make sheet music or other physical manifestations of the song and sell them. You also own the rights to record the song and receive royalties from the song when someone else records the song.
Finally, you own the performing rights to the song. This is simply the right to perform the work. This could be the performance of a recorded work or a live show. Buying a CD only gives you the right to listen privately. If you are playing the music in public you need a license.
What Is Covered By Copyright?
Recent court cases like that of “Blurred Lines” and Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” have raised questions over what parts of a song can and should be copyrighted.
Generally, the copyrightable elements of a song are the lyrics and melody. Everything else is somewhat subjective.
This is because melodies and lyrics have virtually infinite combinations of possibilities. You can do almost anything with a melody, and when you add a rhythmic structure to the song (there’s a near endless combination of rhythms), you’ve got a pretty unique, copyrightable creation.
The lyrics are also infinitely variable. I mean, the themes can be the same, and the words similar from song to song (how many love songs can you think of off the top of your head?). The challenge is coming up with a new way to say what’s already been said.
Chord progressions, on the other hand, are not usually covered by copyright law, and this is due to their function within a song. Chord progressions are created to support the melody line, so they will inevitably get repeated across different songs.
In a diatonic key, there are only seven standard chord as it is (more when you add in extensions and alterations) so it makes sense that you hear the same chord progressions in different songs.
Bass lines also are subject to this treatment. Many times, bass lines are created to support the harmony outlined in the chord progressions, and to support the rhythmic structure laid down by the drums. This cannot be copyrighted.
However, in a song like “Under Pressure”, the bass line is the melody while it’s being played. Thus, it was subject to a copyright dispute when Vanilla Ice used the same bass line in “Ice Ice Baby” (well, he contended that it was different, but obviously, it wasn’t different enough).
There tends to be a certain amount of homogenization within musical genres. So, while many blues songs follow the same 12-bar structure in E, their lyrics and melodies will be different (arguably), and are subject to copyright.
So, what about drums, the beat, and the “vibe” of the song? If someone makes a song with the exact same groove and instrumentation as yours but with different lyrics and melody, that would seem a little fishy, right?
Basically, a case like this would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Some songs have bits of melody in their percussive parts or grooves that may be able to stand up to a copyright suit, and if you submitted sheet music, the copyright office will help your case.
If you can demonstrably prove that the music was stolen and that bits and pieces were copied, you may have a chance.
Basically, the lyrics and melody will be copyrighted every single time. Always. Everything else may not be.
How Do Cover Songs Work?
Recording a cover song means that you are recording your own version of someone else’s copyrighted work. This is your right. You can play or record whatever you want, but if you are going to perform it publicly (even on YouTube,) or sell your cover song on iTunes, you need to license it.
Licensing the song ensures that the people who wrote the song get their fair share of the income you make from the song. It enables you to legally sell the song and perform it publicly and make money from it.
If you don’t license the song, there is a good chance that the song will get yanked down from all platforms and you may even get a cease-and-desist notice.
The best way to submit for a license is through an online service like Loudr. They will make all the paperwork simple for you, and file for the license on your behalf.
Basically, the process is this: First, find out who the publisher of the song is. This could be the original writer, but it’s probably a publishing company or some combination of the two. Then, send a letter of intent to seek a compulsory license to record and perform your own version of the song. Finally, you’ll have to send royalty payments to the author of the song.
Often, the systems in place will allow you to obtain a license to perform the work, but if you don’t hear back, the notice of intent is enough to go ahead and record and distribute the song.
Using a service like Loudr is smart, because filling out all the paperwork is a giant pain, and it must be done exactly how they want it. It’s a legal process that is easy to screw up, since you just want to make music, it’s nice to have a streamlined process.
Also, figuring out how to send royalty payments on whatever sum of money you make sounds terrible. Instead, you can get an online company to handle all of that – making sure you get paid and making sure the publisher/writer gets paid.
Some publishers have what’s called direct licensing. This expedites the process and it means that your song will be approved for the proper license almost immediately.
Copyrighting Your Song Isn’t Hard – Do It!
The key takeaways from this guide are:
- Your copyright is created from the moment you create the song.
- Registering songs is not difficult,
- Most of the time, copyright only cover the lyrics and melody.
- When you copyright a song, you’re protecting your intellectual property, and you’re also ensuring you get paid if someone else wants to perform the song.
- Having your song in the copyright database is very useful, and can result in significant income. Do it!