How to copyright a song

The key to knowing how to copyright a song is to know what copyright protects.

by Joe Runge, Esq.
updated March 14, 2023 ·  2min read

Registering a copyright gives your song the full benefit of copyright protection. Your song's music and lyrics are protected by copyright as soon as you record them, 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.

Find out how to get full copyright protection for your song.

Woman wearing blue dress plays blue guitar

How to get a song copyrighted

There are various state laws and international treaties that discuss copyright. For a song written, recorded, or performed in the United States, federal law grants to song creators these exclusive rights:

  • To reproduce the copyrighted work in copies. This excludes others from making copies of your recordings or sheet music.
  • To prepare derivative works. Excludes others from taking elements of your song to make new ones.
  • To distribute copies. Excludes others from selling copies of your song out of the trunk of a car or on the internet.
  • To perform the copyrighted work publicly. Excludes others from performing your song.
  • To perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of digital audio transmission. Excludes others from playing a recording of your song.

If you want to know how to copyright music, simply knowing what exclusive rights are available is not enough. You also need to know how to get those rights—and how others can use them in their own songs.

How to use copyright to protect your work

When it comes to lyrics, writing them in your notebook grants you instant legal music rights. Once the ink hits the page, you can assert any of the exclusive rights above the lyrics you've written. But what if someone in another city, several months later, writes very similar or even the same lyrics? How can you prove that you wrote them first?

Copyright registration is the process whereby you can establish your priority as the first author. For a small copyright registration fee, you put everyone on notice that these are your lyrics. Anyone who writes those same lyrics after the fact is subject to your exclusive rights as a copyright holder—and you don't even have to prove the later author ever saw your work.

The Library of Congress keeps a comprehensive list of every painting, poem, and song registration copyright. Although few songwriters scour song copyright registration to determine if a new tune infringes on an existing one—they probably should. Song copyright registration grants constructive notice to the song. The tune, the lyrics, the drum track on the recording, and chord progression in the bridge are each element an individual and expressive part to which the author can assert any of the exclusive rights.

That's why it's so difficult to create an automated song copyright checker. It would take a complex algorithm that could listen to music and integrate all the choices made by the composer, lyricist, and performer.

But you can know what is and is not protected—in your work and in the works of others. Before you pick up your guitar to strum a new tune, take a moment to recognize what parts of that song are your property and how to find out if any of it is someone else's.

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Joe Runge, Esq.

About the Author

Joe Runge, Esq.

Joe Runge graduated from the University of Iowa with a Juris doctorate and a master of science in molecular evolution. H… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.