How to Copyright a Sound Recording by Michelle Kaminsky, J.D.

How to Copyright a Sound Recording

Registering a copyright for a sound recording isn't complicated, but there are several things you should know before you proceed.

by Michelle Kaminsky, J.D.
updated March 16, 2021 · 3 min read

Once a sound recording is made, it is already technically copyrighted, which means that you own the rights to the work without doing anything else. However, if you want to enforce those rights in court—in the case of infringement by someone else—and seek to recover monetary damages or stop someone else from using the work without your permission, you must register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office.

The procedure for registering the copyright for a sound recording is fairly straightforward, though understanding a few key copyright concepts will help you through the process.

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Copyrighting Sound Recordings

A copyright in a sound recording protects recorded musical, spoken, or other sounds that do not accompany an audiovisual work. Federal copyright protection of sound recordings has only been possible since 1972. Any recordings made before 1972 are subject to different provisions.

A sound recording is distinct from the material recorded in it, which may sound confusing, but consider that a song is often made up of a musical composition as well as lyrics, and then it is recorded. All of those components of a song are copyrightable separately. To be eligible for copyright, a sound recording must be the original work of the author and show a minimal amount of creativity.

You may also copyright a sound effect, called a sound mark by the Copyright Office. Think, for example, of NBC's three chimes—they are copyrighted. Notably, there are no copyright rights in a voice, no matter how unique you believe it is.

Sound Recording Copyright Registration Process

The U.S. Copyright Office outlines the copyright registration procedure and also provides excellent background information on its website, but generally, you must do the following:

  1. Complete an application form.
  2. Pay the required, nonrefundable filing fee.
  3. Submit the required "deposit" of your work, which varies based on the various types of sound recordings.

When applying, you must be sure to select the correct type of copyright—sound recording, composition, or both. You must also choose whether the work has been published or is unpublished. A work is published when it is available to the public and you authorized this availability with the intention that it would be shared and distributed.

You can also use the assistance of an online legal service to simplify the process and help you file your copyright quickly and easily.

Rights Included in a Sound Recording Copyright

Once you have registered your copyright, you may not only continue to determine what can be done with the sound recording but also seek relief from a court if it is used without your permission. As a sound recording copyright owner, you may:

  • Make copies of the recording that directly or indirectly capture the actual sounds on the recording.
  • Sell or distribute copies or phonorecords of the recording.
  • Prepare derivative works in which the actual sounds on the recording are rearranged, remixed, or in some way altered in sequence or quality.
  • Perform the work publicly by digital audio transmission.

Once you have registered your copyright, you can enforce it moving forward. In order to be eligible for statutory damages and attorneys' fees, you must register your copyright prior to the infringement or within three months after publication of your work.

While the procedure itself isn't complicated, specific questions concerning types of copyrights arise often. For further guidance, you may wish to seek professional advice.

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Michelle Kaminsky, J.D.

About the Author

Michelle Kaminsky, J.D.

Freelance writer and editor Michelle Kaminsky, Esq. has been working with LegalZoom since 2004. She earned a Juris Docto… Read more