Many songwriters miss out on copyrighting their music because they think it's protected as soon as they write it. While it is technically true that you own your music as soon as you create it, you have no means to enforce your rights through litigation unless you register a copyright for that music.
You need to register a copyright for your music before you can file an infringement case. In many cases, you also need a copyright to collect royalties.
Copyright Infringement Claims
You cannot assert your songwriter rights in a copyright infringement claim without first registering a copyright for your work. You can potentially claim significant financial compensation from anyone who copies your music, but eligibility may rely upon having a registered copyright.
Registering a copyright for your songs not only protects your work from being copied, but it's also the first step to gaining songwriter royalties. Songwriters with copyright protection for their work retain exclusive rights to distribute, perform, and reproduce their music. If anyone wants to do anything with your songs, they need to come to you for permission. And unless you want to give your music away for free, your permission to reproduce, sample, or perform your music comes with an attached price.
Steps to Secure Your Copyright
The good news is that it's pretty straightforward and relatively inexpensive to secure a copyright for your music. Here are the steps.
- Get your music down into some sort of tangible format: That format can be a written music score, a complete set of song lyrics, or any sort of recording of your complete composition, whether it's captured on your cell phone or at a recording studio.
- Register your music: You will fill out a questionnaire, pay a fee, and upload either your audio file, written score, or song lyrics. You can submit physical copies of everything through the mail for a higher fee. You may also be able to submit a collection of songs (like an album) all at once for a single fee.
Songwriter Rights and Copyright Protections
Several copyright protections are available for songwriters and composers.
As a copyright holder for your music, you retain the exclusive right to:
- Perform your songs publicly
- Sell your compositions
- Prepare derivative works
- Reproduce or duplicate your music
As the copyright holder, you generally have the exclusive right to grant others permission to exercise these rights.
You earn royalties from your music when people license it from you. Your license grants permission for someone else to use your song in some fashion. One common license is a mechanical license, which you grant to someone else who wants to record your song. You can also license your own recordings of your music. Licenses vary in their scope and parameters, but they exist to get you paid for the privilege of using your music.
Copyright for the Master Recording
Composers who have their songs licensed for TV shows are familiar with the following question from music supervisors: Who owns the master? The “master" is the master recording of your music. If you've recorded your original music yourself, or released it on an album that you produced yourself (without a commercial record label), then you own the master and you can license it.
When you submit your self-produced recording to the copyright office, you may be able to protect the sound recording of your song as well as the songwriting itself. Songwriters who release their music on a record label usually enter into an agreement with the record company as to who owns the master recording. But it's not common for songwriters to surrender their composer rights.