How To Copyright Music For Musicians


The Steps to Protecting Your Music

As a musician, I’m sure you’ve heard the word copyright floating around. Hopefully, you understand copyright is a way of protecting your interest in your music or what is referred to as an original work. By copyrighting your songs, you now have a way of holding others accountable if they violate your musical interest by copyright infringement. 

Copyright law is an extremely complex subject and music is one of the most restricted and licensed potions of copyright law. Musicians can easily make the mistake of relying on what seems like a simple solution that doesn’t reflect the current rules of copyright law. My goal is to give you an overview of copyright law and how it applies to musicians and composers today. 

What Does A Copyright Cover?

When most use the word copyright, they think of a singular item, whereas in reality, copyright should be thought of as your bundle of rights which relate to one artistic expression, in this case, a song. 

For music, your rights include the following:

  • The right to perform the work in public
  • The right to sell copies of the work
  • The right to make copies of the work
  • The right to make derivative works (remixes, new arrangements, etc) 
  • The right to permit others to do any of the above statements (This is what licensing is)

Music is slightly more challenging for copyright law because most musical works come in two true forms: The wire composition, which commonly involves sheet music, and the sound recording. 

General Length Of Musical Copyright

Once a copyright is created, protection generally lasts for 70 years after the original author’s death and in some cases 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation. 

That being said, if the original author lived to be 90 years old, anyone looking to cover or license the song would need to wait an additional 70 years before they were able to do so WITHOUT approval from the copyright holder. Once the copyright is expired, the composition and sheet music fall into public domain and can be used in whatever fashion they choose. 

Compositions vs. Recordings

If you are a musician, you need to know the difference between the song’s composition and the song’s recording. Not only does this difference affect copyright and registration, it can also affect which license the owner of that musical work can grant to others. 

The easiest way to explain this is by using an example. For this, we will use the song “Blackbird” by the Beatles. Let’s say an ad agency wants to use the original recording of the Beatles performing this song. The Ad agency would need to go to the copyright holder and request permission to use the recording

Now let’s say that the same ad agency wants to use the song Blackbird; however, they want a new up and coming artist to cover the song. The agency would need to license the song’s sheet music and lyrics. It’s important to realize there are most likely two parts too every song, the recording, and the lyrical content or sheet music. Depending on what a licensee is planning to do, they will need to obtain the license from the correct copyright holder. 

Things To Consider

These are a few details to consider regarding copyright from a musician’s perspective. 

Who created the work, and for what purpose? The copyright in a “work made for hire” deal may belong to the person who hired the original creator. If you are a work made for hire and creating anything musical, please check the contract before assuming you will end up owning the rights to your creation. 

When does a musician not have a copyright? Copyright law has limitations. For example, if you sell your music on a CD and I play it for my three friends, this will not infringe on the current copyright law, even though playing a CD can be seen as a form of performance. 

Copyright doesn’t live forever. As stated previously, every creative work loses its copyright protection and falls into public domain. The rules when this happens are complex but after some explanation one can ultimately understand what is going on when information is provided. 

Copyright law has historically moved more slowly than technological advances. Because of this, many tools exist that can make copyright and licensing easier for musicians. New approaches like creative commons licensing have also made it easier for musicians to share their work while still receiving the credit they deserve. Creative Commons licensing is everywhere on youtube and social media platforms. 

How Do I Copyright My Song? 

To register your work’s copyright for a musical composition, you must submit the following to the US Copyright Office. 

  1. A completed application form. 
  2. Register for an account at the U.S Copyright office website 
  3. A non-refundable filing fee 
  4. The required deposit copies of your work. This fee is $35 for an online registration work with a single author, to $85 for a paper registration. (It is much easier to complete this online) 
  5. Submit a copy of your song. You may mail in copies of your music in paper form, although submitting an audio recording online tends to be more convenient. 
  6. Wait for your registration to be processed. Please remember processing times for copyright registration can vary, however in general, it can take up to five months to process an electronic registration and significantly longer for those applications which are mailed in. 

It’s important to note that you can register up to 10 unpublished works on the same application; however, you will have to select the new application for “Group of Unpublished Works.” 

To formally file your copyright, you can head to the United States Copyright Office or click here

When you register your song copyright, you take an essential step toward protecting your intellectual property. Registration is not difficult nor expensive. However, you do need to carefully follow the copyright office instructions for submitting copies of your work. 

It’s important to know, copyright and intellectual property law dives much deeper than what is mentioned above. You can spend years trying to understand everything it entails. I hope that you have a better understanding of how to copyright your work and how you can use that copyright to protect what is yours. 

Tie It All Together

If you are interested in learning more about copyright, music publishing, and the music business, Dark Horse Institute’s Music Business Program is a great way to take things to the next level when you are ready.

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