Federal copyright law protects published and unpublished original musical works, including the song lyrics. A music copyright exists as soon as the musical composition has been created in a fixed format; i.e. sheet music or an audio recording. An idea for a song or melody cannot be copyrighted. The copyright laws for music extend copyright owners legal protections when copyrighting music. The process for how to copyright music is straightforward.
Note: Band names, song titles and short phrases cannot be copyrighted.
Rights of copyright owners
Why should I copyright my music? Music copyrights give the copyright owner a number of rights to their copyrighted music, including:
- The right to reproduce, sell or distribute copies of the sheet music or audio recordings to the public. Under the “first sale” doctrine, the copyright owner has the right to reproduce and distribute their work first. Thereafter, others must pay a licensing fee to the copyright owner.
- The right to create derivative music from the original musical work.
- The right to perform the musical work publicly. The copyright owner receives royalties whenever their musical composition is performed.
- The right to display the musical work publicly.
While copyright owners don’t have to register their copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, it gives them additional legal protections, which include:
- It creates a public record of the copyright and the date it was created.
- It allows the copyright owner to file an infringement suit if someone infringes upon their copyright.
If someone infringes on the music copyright, the damages the copyright owner can recover is based on when you registered the copyright.
- If the music copyright is registered within three months or prior to a copyright infringement, the copyright owner can receive attorney’s fees and statutory damages, which can range between $750 and $30,000 for each infringement.
- If the infringement occurs before the music copyright is registered, the copyright owner can only recover actual damages.
To copyright music, the copyright owner must submit the following to the copyright office:
- A completed application form. The copyright owner can copyright music online by completing an online application or complete and submit a paper application. The copyright owner can copyright a song or multiple songs on an audio recording. It takes six or more months to process a song copyright.
- A nonrefundable $35 filing fee for online applications and an $85 filing fee for paper applications as of this date. Fees can change, so always check the U.S. Copyright website.
- A nonreturnable copy or copies of your work. The number of copies varies; for unpublished works, the copyright owner needs to submit one complete copy or audio recording.
The effective date of registration is the date the U.S. Copyright Office receives your completed application materials. If you apply online, you’ll receive an email confirmation that your application was received; if you submit a paper application, you’ll receive a letter if further information is needed or if the application has been rejected or a certificate of registration.
Length of copyright
- For musical works created on or after January 1, 1978, the work is protected from the date that it was created, plus an additional 70 years after the copyholder’s death.
- For musical works created before January 1, 1978, but not published or registered prior to that date, the copyright period is the same as for works created on or after January 1, 1978.
- For musical works created before January 1, 1978, the work was protected for 28 years. Amendments to the Copyright Act of 1976 have extended the renewal term an additional 20 years, for a renewal term of 67 years; the work is protected for 95 years.
Limitations on copyright
The “fair use” doctrine permits limited use of copyrighted material without infringing on the copyright holder’s rights. Examples include: comment or criticism, educational uses, news reporting and parody.
Copyright protects original musical works in a fixed format and gives copyright holders certain exclusive rights to their work. While copyright holders don’t have to register their work with the U.S. Copyright Office, doing so affords them legal protections against infringement of their copyright.
LegalZoom will help you file the paperwork you need to register a copyright. Start by answering a few questions about your music online, and we’ll check your answers for consistency and completeness. Then, we assemble and file the paperwork with the Copyright Office. Have questions about your copyright? Legal help is here—our legal plans let you speak with an attorney about your copyright for an affordable price.
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