Attention songwriters: Protect your valuable assets with a Copyright

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Songwriters love hearing their songs on the radio. They get paid royalties each time the song is played. But getting paid doesn't just happen. A writer must copyright his song to protect against unauthorized and unpaid use of his work. Federal copyright law guarantees protection from unauthorized reproduction, adaptation, performance, or distribution of copyrighted material.

Instant Ownership

The revised Copyright Law of 1976 states that a song is automatically protected by copyright once the writer puts it in some tangible form, such as in a recording or on paper - even a paper napkin will suffice. However, in order to sue for copyright infringement, a writer will need to have officially registered his or her song with the U.S. Copyright Office. Official registration also offers a wider range of legal remedies in case the writer becomes a victim of unauthorized use of material.

Re-Write, Re-Edit, Then Register

Most writers wait until they are ready to publish or release their songs before registering them with the Copyright Office. The song should be registered before it is released into the public sphere, i.e., available on the Web or other medium. Obtaining a copyright is easy and inexpensive. Forms can be ordered by calling the Copyright Office or online. A $30 fee covers one song or a collection of songs.

A copyright obtained in the U.S. will be recognized in other countries. The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works provides the basis for copyright agreements worldwide. As with U.S. copyright law, Berne guarantees the songwriter's ability to authorize the use of his material as he desires.

Previously, a copyright was good during during the author's lifetime plus 50 years. The 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act extended U.S. copyright to life of the author plus 70 years. The Act is named for Bono, a former actor and songwriter who served as a California congressman until his death in 1998. Bono was a strong supporter of copyright extensions. The extension gives U.S. copyrighted work the same term of protection that exists in European countries.

Copyright Licenses

As copyright owner, a songwriter can do whatever he wants with his song as well as control how others may use it. A copyright license gives another person permission to use a song. Once the song has been recorded and distributed, it comes under compulsory licensing which allows anyone to record the song without the writer's consent provided he pay royalties, notify the writer when the song will be released, and provide monthly royalty statements. Record companies dislike the paperwork of compulsory licensing and prefer to obtain a direct license from the songwriter and negotiate usage terms. Users cannot make changes to the song without the copyright owner's approval.

Partners in Rhyme

If George pens the lyrics and Ira writes the music, both own half of the song. This shared copyright splits 50/50 between writers any monies received from use of their work.

Another type of shared copyright involves songwriter and publisher. A publisher can help promote a song to record companies and singers. The writer gives the publisher full or partial copyright control, known as an assignment or transfer, of the written song. The publisher and writer will usually share equally the monies earned from licensing and fees.

It is also possible for a person to pay to use part of a copyrighted piece. The writer or her publisher would sign over a portion of the copyright to allow a sampled composition from the song.

Digital Dilemma

What happens when Joe Consumer uses digital recording equipment to tape his favorite tunes? Will the songwriter send him a bill for licensing rights or sue for copyright violation? The 1992 Audio Home Recording Act (AHRA) exempts consumers from copyright infringement lawsuits when they record music for private, noncommercial use.

The law also provides for small royalty payments to songwriters, recording artists, and record companies by requiring makers of digital recording technology to pay a statutory royalty on each piece of equipment sold. In return, digital manufacturers receive immunity from copyright violations based on the use of their equipment by consumers. General computers, CD-ROM drives, and other multi-purpose equipment are not covered under AHRA, thus their manufacturers and users are not immune from copyright infringement lawsuits.

Dirty Downloading

Downloading music from the Internet has replaced the record store as the place to pick up the latest tunes. While a godsend to music lovers, the songwriter's pocket is picked as he receives no royalties from file-sharing services.

Record companies are fighting back with a series of lawsuits against individual consumers who have obtained free music downloads from unauthorized online services such as Kazaa and Grokster. Napster, a former file-sharing evildoer, has gone legit. Since 2003, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has filed over 3000 lawsuits against students, families, and parents.

The RIAA asserts that "songlifting," sending copyrighted music over the Internet via unauthorized file-sharing services, is illegal under federal copyright laws. It also harms industry employees by denying them monies for the product they produce. This includes songwriters who lose out on royalty payments for their copyrighted songs.

While the record companies cry foul over illegal downloading, several artists have filed a class-action suit against Sony BMG, accusing the label of shortchanging musicians on royalties from music sold via authorized Internet services such as Apple's iTunes. The list of artists includes many singer/songwriters such as Bruce Springsteen, Glenn Frey, Cheap Trick, and Gloria Estefan.

The downloading music trend will not go quietly into the night. Congress or the courts will soon have to decide how to fairly compensate songwriters, singers, publishers, and record labels for music transmitted via the Internet without criminalizing law-abiding citizens who just wanna rock.

No matter what your relation to music may be, understanding copyrights can add to your enjoyment of it. If you're a consumer, know your favorite artists are getting paid. If you're a musician, know just how much you own the music you've created.