Whether you're trying to protect a song or a symphony, the first step toward protecting your work is getting the music down in some tangible format, such as recorded or written on music staff paper.
Technically, some copyright protection exists from this point on. Still, you'll likely want to establish your copyright in a more formal way to reinforce your ownership and enhance your protections over the music.
If you don't register an official copyright for your music, it can be difficult to assert your rights in a copyright infringement claim. And as a musician with a registered copyright for your work, you have a lot of exclusive rights, including:
- Right to distribute your music in all formats, both physical and digital
- Right to create derivative works based on your music
- Right to perform your music
A copyright is about more than preventing someone else from copying your work. Securing a copyright for your music means that if someone else wants to record and distribute your music, sample it, or perform it, that person needs your permission. When musicians don't secure a copyright for their music, they can close themselves off to potential revenue streams from other people wanting to perform or use their work.
What Music Is Eligible for Copyright?
Misconceptions abound about what can and can't be registered for copyright protection when it comes to music. It's sometimes difficult to separate the elements of music from each other. Here are some guidelines.
You cannot copyright:
- Song titles. As any search in your favorite music platform will reveal, many songs share the same or similar titles.
- Chord progressions. To copyright these on their own would be akin to a novelist trying to copyright the alphabet.
- Incomplete pieces. You can't copyright a fragment of a piece of music. It needs to be a complete piece.
You can copyright:
- Lyrics. The lyrics to a song will be protected as part of the general copyright for a piece, but you can also copyright complete song lyrics on their own, even if they haven't been set to music.
- Complete works. Songs, jingles, incidental music, symphonic pieces—these are just some of the many types of music that are eligible for copyright. It is the unique, original combination of melody, harmony, and rhythm in a given piece of music that is protected by copyright.
How Do I Register a Copyright for My Music?
It's fairly easy to register a copyright your music, and the instructions and procedures are available from the U.S. Copyright Office. You need to:
- Complete a copyright application
- Pay a nonrefundable filing fee
- Submit the music to the copyright office
To make the process easier, you can also use an online company to file your copyright application and handle the paperwork.
After you apply for registration, the copyright office will keep you notified of your application status. Successful registration means exclusive rights and much greater protections over your work.