How To Copyright A Song: A Guide To Protecting Your Music

how to copyright a song

Have you read about those big name bands who end up in courtrooms long after they have split up arguing about who wrote what part of their songs and what split of the earnings of their music, or royalties, should have been divided up? Equally, you might have read about some humble songwriter who claims that their melody has been pinched by an established star who claims that they wrote it. Either way, these problems usually only get sorted out months or years down the line in a court after a number of legal arguments have been made and countered.

In the end, it is the legal professionals who win in this process and artists rarely come out of it with their dignity intact, nor their bank balances looking as healthy as they once did. In order to be able to prove that you own your music, it is important to understand the concept of copyright. Copyrighting is not the sole domain of music and includes all so-called intellectual property. Therefore, independent music makers and songwriters – just as much as photographers, writers and designers – will get something out of this article. In it, we’ll look at the basic copyright function, the degree to which you can protect yourself and the length of time you can expect to ‘own’ all of the earning rights derived from your musical creations, and exactly how to copyright a song.

What Is Copyright?

Copyright is a law that gives you exclusive use of a work you have created, protecting you against the work being copied. Without the benefit of a legal team who can help to copyright your music for you, independent musicians need to go it alone. When it comes to music, there are three basic things to consider, in terms of protecting yourself. The first is the copyright you hold to your songs and the second is to any recordings that you might have made of them. Thirdly, and of increasing importance in the music industry, is your image rights, which might cover things like your band logo and so on. Although the copyright laws vary from country to country, they all basically have the same function. That is to legally grant the creator of a work exclusive rights to its use and distribution so long as it is original. Therefore, you already own the copyright to your own works, but you don’t to cover versions. Remember that your music needs to be original, so your copyright could be challenged in law if somebody claims that your work is not new in some way, for example that you ‘borrowed’ a riff from another song or that your lyrics ‘quote’ too extensively from a poem or other literary source. There are some exceptions to the exclusive rights granted however, fair usage of your work is allowed and for which copyright law will offer you no protection. This might include clips or excerpts of your songs for the purposes of criticism or reviews, for example.

What Can I Protect?

Essentially, songs are made up of three components and each of these, or rather the three taken together, can come under the protection of copyright law. Harmony structure, or the chords of your song, its lyrical content and the melody of your track, sometimes including riffs and licks, are all protected under copyright. However, this protection is only good so long as nobody challenges it in law. Nonetheless, if somebody later comes up with an identical song to yours, so long as you can prove yours was written first, copyrighting it should protect you and allow you to successfully challenge their claim of ownership. Just like any intellectual property, copyrighting should allow you exclusive earning rights to your song, unless you sign them away under a management or publishing deal, that is.

Remember that for the most part, popular songs are made up from a standard array of chords – major, minor, sevenths and so on – so you should not be too keen to exert your legal rights over a song that has a repetitive pattern of chords, such as C, Am, F, C. It is highly likely that some other songwriter got there before you, after all. However, taken with a distinctive melody and an original lyric, you might be more secure in your rights. If you write lyrics but not the melody, then basically you will own half of the intellectual property covered by copyright law and vice versa.

How Much Does It Cost?

So how exactly can you go about copyrighting your music, and how much does it cost? Well, given that the law affords you intellectual property rights automatically, the cost is zero. Your music is automatically protected as soon as it is created. However, this seldom works in reality because you need to be able to prove that you own a song and wrote it first in order to assert your rights. One of the cheapest ways of doing this is to make a simple recording of your song and to burn it onto a CD. Then simply post the CD to yourself. If unopened, the date mark will reasonably prove when the work was first made. Alternatively, you could use notation software or a manuscript to post the melody, harmony structure and lyrics to yourself in a paper format. All that this will cost you is a few pence. This method is frequently referred to as “poor man’s copyright.” Nonetheless, this method has been overturned in some court rulings in the USA, so you may want to go to greater lengths.

Sending your work to a bank or a solicitor for them to hold for you for future use is much better than sending it to yourself. Banks and legal professionals offer this sort of service for all sorts of important documents, such as property deeds, but they will charge you for doing so. Make sure you obtain a written receipt. Registering your song with a publishing organisation is often free, but this on its own does not create any copyright in law or offer you additional legal rights. It should mean that you obtain royalties, if your song is played on the radio or in a public place, however.

You can also use the services of the United States Copyright Office who offer a copyright registration service. The progress of registering a song is as simple as completing an application form, sending a copy of the work to be protected, and paying a fee, and you will be provided with a certificate of registration. The fee charged for an online application is $35 for one work by a single author, otherwise the fee increases to $55. For a paper registration however, the fee is $85. Please note that even if the application is submitted online, the work being protected will still need to be physically sent to the copyright office. It can take up to 8 months to receive the certification of registration for online applications, and up to 13 months for paper applications.

For outside the US, there is a similar service offered by Copyright House. The fee structure is quite flexible. You can either pay based on the number of registrations, for example £79 for 5 registrations, £99 for 10, or they have an option for unlimited registrations which is charged either on a yearly basis at a charge of £19 a year, or for a 10-year period or lifetime.

How Long Does The Copyright Last?

The Copyright, Design and Patents Act of 1988 gives independent musicians a more extensive period of copyright protection than they had previously enjoyed under earlier legislation, so the good news is that artists are in a better position than ever before. However, copyrighting your music does not mean that it will last forever in the eyes of the law. The length of time copyright is held varies depending on the nature of the intellectual property, so your image rights, for example, may be different to the ownership of any self-penned songs. The length of copyright also varies between different jurisdictions, although there is international agreement, certainly among western countries, for song writing.

In the US and UK, your songwriter’s copyright will expires 70 years after your death. This applies to the creators of all musical, written, artistic and film work. However, when it comes to broadcasting rights it is 50 years from when the broadcast is made that counts. Musicians’ rights to their sound recordings has been extended to 70 years from the date of publication, to bring it more into line with other performers’ rights. In cases where you might want to use something old without infringing on someone else’s potential intellectual property, then remember that the copyright expires 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work was first made available to the public, so long as the creator of that work is unknown.