How to Copyright Music

How to Copyright Music

by Jane Haskins, Esq., September 2015

Copyright law protects original musical works, including any accompanying lyrics. This includes new music and new versions or arrangements of existing music. To receive a copyright for your music, it must meet two criteria:

•    It must be an original work:  it must originate with you and show some minimal amount of creativity.  Short phrases, titles and chord progressions are not protected by copyright.
•    It must be fixed in a tangible object, such as a digital recording, sheet music or audiotape. An idea for a song or a melody that you have played on the piano but have not recorded cannot be copyrighted.

When Does Copyright Protection Begin?

Music is copyrighted as soon as it has been created and fixed in a tangible object such as an audio recording or sheet music. You don’t need to register a musical work with the U.S. Copyright Office or attach a copyright notice to receive copyright protection.

Rights Protected by Copyright

A copyright is a group of rights, including:

•    The right to make, sell and distribute copies of music and lyrics on sheet music, records, tapes, CDs and certain digital media.  The copyright owner has the right to make and distribute the first sound recording of a piece of music.  After that, other people can make and distribute other recordings, but they must pay licensing fees to the copyright owner.
•    The right to prepare derivative works based on the original music.  
•    The right to perform the musical composition.  This entitles the copyright owner to receive royalties when the composition is performed or played, either live, on radio or television, over the internet, or through music streaming services.  
•    The right to display the music publicly.

Types of Musical Works that Can Be Copyrighted

•    Songs and their accompanying lyrics

•    Musical scores for movies or television programs
•    Symphonic or electronic compositions
•    Advertising jingles
•    A copyright in a musical work is different than the copyright in a sound recording. A sound recording copyright covers sounds contained in a recording of a song or other musical composition.  It does not cover the music itself.  Thus, if you write some music and make a recording of it, you own both a music copyright and a sound recording copyright.

Why Should You Register a Copyright?

There are important advantages to registering your music copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office:

•    Registration is a public record of your copyright ownership and the date your work was created.

•    If your music has been published, registration fulfills the requirement that you deposit two copies of your work with the Library of Congress within three months of its publication.  There can be fines if you fail to do this. 
•    You must register your copyright before you can file a lawsuit for copyright infringement.
•    If you register your copyright within three months of publication or before copyright infringement occurs, you can recover statutory damages and attorney’s fees if you sue someone for copyright infringement.  Your actual losses and the infringer’s profits may be hard to prove in a copyright infringement case, but you can receive statutory damages without having to prove these amounts.

Registration Procedures and Deposit Requirements

To register a copyright, you must submit the following to the copyright office: 

•    A completed application form.  This may be done online or by mailing a paper application.  Online applications have faster processing times and lower fees.
•    A filing fee of $35 for online applications and $65 for paper applications.
•    A copy or copies of your work. You can submit paper copies, such as sheet music, or an audio recording such as a CD. The copyright office website has details about the number and type of copies you must submit for various kinds of musical compositions.

When you're ready to register a copyright, LegalZoom will help. Use our online questionaire to answer questions about your creative work and we'll use your answers to file all of the paperwork with the US Copyright Office on your behalf.