You’ve written this great song, and now you want to put it out there for all the world to hear. Do you need to register the copyright first?
The good news is, your song’s music and lyrics are protected by copyright as soon as you record them in some way, even if it’s just a rough recording on your cell phone. But to get the full benefit of copyright protection, including the right to sue people for infringing your copyright, you must register it with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Song Copyright Law Basics
Copyright law explains how to copyright songs. You can copyright music, copyright lyrics, or copyright both. You may copyright a new song or a new version or arrangement of an existing song.
The song must be your original work, meaning that it must have been created by you and must show some minimal amount of creativity.
You can’t copyright a song title or a chord progression. If you make an audio recording of your song, you may copyright in the sound recording in addition to your copyright in the song itself.
A music copyright is actually a bundle of separate exclusive rights. When you copyright songs, you have the right to:
- Make and distribute copies of the song on sheet music, records, tapes, CDs and certain digital media. You also have the exclusive right to make and distribute the first sound recording of the song. Once the first recording has been distributed, other people can make and distribute additional recordings, but they must obtain a mechanical license for the song and pay you a royalty fee. If someone wants to record the song onto a video or motion picture, they must obtain a synchronization license.
- Prepare derivative works, including new arrangements.
- Perform the song and authorize others to perform it. If someone else wants to play your song for an audience, they must obtain a public performance license and pay you royalties. This applies whether the song is performed live or played on radio, television, over the internet or on a music streaming service.
- Display the song.
How to Copyright a Song
Copyrighting a song isn't difficult, but it does require you to follow some important steps.
Step 1: Record Your Song in a “Tangible Medium”
Your song isn’t eligible for copyright protection if it’s just a tune you’re humming in your head, a melody you play on the piano, or a set of lyrics that you haven’t written down. Before you can get copyright protection, you must record your song in some way – typically either in written form or on a taped or digital sound recording.
Step 2: Register for an Account at the U.S. Copyright Office Website
You can also register a copyright by mail, but electronic registrations are cheaper and can be processed much more quickly. You can register electronically even if you plan to mail a copy of your work to the copyright office.
To register for an account, go to www.copyright.gov and click on “register a copyright.” Then click on “log into eCO” and you’ll be taken to a screen where you can log in or register as a user.
Step 3: Fill out the Copyright Registration Application
Once you have signed up for an online account, you can access and fill out online copyright registration forms. Be sure to carefully follow the instructions.
If you choose to register your copyright by mail, you must complete a paper application using Form PA.
Step 4: Pay the Registration Fee
You can pay the copyright registration fee online with a credit or debit card, an ACH transfer, or a copyright office deposit account. If you register by mail, you can send the fee by check or money order.
Starting May 1, 2014, basic registration fees range from $35 for an online registration of one work with a single author to $85 for a paper registration.
Step 5: Submit a Copy of Your Song
You may mail copies of your song in paper form or as an audio recording. You may also be eligible to upload your song digitally. The copyright office website describes the number and type of copies you must submit for both published and unpublished songs.
Step 6: Wait for Your Registration to Be Processed
Processing times for copyright registrations can vary, but in general, it takes three to five months to process an electronic registration and seven to 10 months to process an application by mail.
When you register a song copyright, you take an important step toward protecting your intellectual property. Registration is not difficult or expensive, but you do need to carefully follow the copyright office instructions for filling out the forms and submitting copies of your work.