Songwriting tips for Copyright, Publishing and Royalties


So, you know how to write songs, and you’ve ready to do something with them. Now what? This is where a lot of new songwriters struggle. Not knowing what to do after the song is written is something many people go through in this business. Here are some songwriting tips to help you navigate the business of music.

The idea of copyrighting a song can be daunting, finding out how to get it published can be tough and royalties, well those can be confusing. My goal with the paragraphs to follow is to help you understand what’s really going on and give you some tips to give yourself as a writer an advantage.  

Writing is something you love to do and making a living doing it is what you should be inspired to do. So, let’s jump into it. 

1. Music Copyright

What is a copyright? Well, is simply the legal ownership of a musical composition or recording. When you have this ownership. You have the exclusive rights to redistribute and reproduce the work. Upon that it will also give you the rights to license the recording or composition to earn royalties.  

It’s important to understand there are two types of music copyright. You have the copyright for the master, and then the composition. The composition is for the arrangement of chord progressions and notes and melodies in a certain order, basically the theme or idea of the song, whereas the master covers the actual recorded track in total. 

This copyright is held by the label if it’s a signed artist or the artist if they are independent. In an ideal world, you would want to own both. You will be free to do whatever you want with your music when you want to do it. However, if you sign with a record label, it’s almost never the case that an artist keeps their masters. 

When is the copyright created? This is the thing; the copyright is created when the music is fixed in a tangible form. When looking at composition the copyright begins usually when the music is put on a piece of paper, recorded or written down in another way. 

The master recording is different. You will need to register that with the US Copyright Office. The best thing to do is copyright your music before you release it to the world. Get in the habit of doing this. It’s relatively inexpensive and if the song does well, you will be compensated accordingly. Many artists leave money on the table by not taking the initial steps when the song is created to ensure they truly own it. 

One of the biggest mistakes writers and artists make other than assuming they own something if they create it, is that the US Copyright is the only one you need. This is not the case; you may need to register it in other regions to ensure your rights are protected. If this is something you are not comfortable with, I would recommend seeking out an entertainment attorney early in your career. Yes, they may cost money, but they are worth every penny in the long run. 

2. Music Publishing 

Ok, publishing, let’s talk about getting paid. Publishing is the monetization of music from a business standpoint through promotion. If you are signed with a publisher, they are there to ensure that you as their songwriter receive the royalties for your work. 

A publisher will also work to exploit your work in a positive way to be performed and reproduced. Many of the world’s largest artists rely on good songwriters for help with writing their music. 

When that song is purchased, streamed, or licensed, revenue is generated. You get a portion of that revenue as the creator of the music. Many records have several writers and even songs can have two or three writers per song, making this side of the business slightly confusing. 

If you are a songwriter, you need to register with a PRO (performing rights organization). Here in the United States, we have ASCAP and BMI that you can register with. There is a third called SESAC however, you must be invited to join that organization. 

So, start by deciding which publishing administration you want to register with. It’s important to know you do not have to be signed to a publisher to do so. You can do this at any point. If you do sign with a publisher otherwise known as a “Pub Deal” you will be registered with one of these PRO’s anyway. 

If you are a new writer, this may be something you don’t want to explore right away, but you can become your own music publisher. This is something a lot of veteran writers do to work around potential fees and service charges for a major PRO. 

Remember, everyone’s got to make money. If you are signed to a PRO or publisher, you need to keep track of your uses, get in the habit of doing this. You should always know where your revenue is coming from or where you should expect revenue from. 

Don’t think the job is done just because you are represented, learn to understand business, ask questions and know where your music is being used. 

3. Music Royalties

Royalties are the thing everyone wants! 

If you’re unsure of what royalties are, that’s not an issue. Royalties are essentially payments. This industry relies on royalties to pay artists and writers. A royalty is a payment made to the owner of an asset, which in this case is the copyright for both the composition and the master. 

If you are the songwriter, your royalties will come from the composition, the label will take their royalties from the master, and break off a piece for the artist, often referred to as an artist royalty. 

Royalty payments are paid to the copyright owner before anyone else is paid, they are taken off the top of the revenue generated. If you have a popular song this could ultimately give you a flow of money for a long time or even your entire career. Remember the copyright protects your work, no one can use it without a license, and you are paid a fee every time it is used.

Currently, the US Copyright last the Life of the last surviving author plus 70 years. So even after the original creator passes away, that copyright is still valid for another 70 years. It’s important to understand how substantial royalties really are. 

My biggest recommendation is to understand splits when regarding royalties. If you work with multiple writers, you will get a certain portion. The music and the lyrics both make up 50% of the song. If you just write the lyrics, you will receive 50% of the writers publishing, but if you write the lyrics and the music, you will receive 100%, many modern-day songwriters dabble in music production for this very reason. 

If you are interested in learning more about production, check out our blog “How To Become A Bedroom Music Producer” HERE

With all that being said, you have to remember why you started writing songs, its something you love to do. If you’re talented enough at something, you can make it a career. By understanding more about copyright, publishing and royalties, you set yourself up for success. So get out there and do what you love! 

If you are interested in a career in the Music Industry, Dark Horse Institute’s Composition and SongwritingAudio Engineering, or Music Business Programs are a great way to take things to the next level!

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