The Most Detailed Guide on How to Copyright Music

Navigating the maze of legalities to protect your music can seem like a daunting task for many artists. In today's digital age, it's more important than ever for musicians to protect their music and lyrics. Therefore, aspiring singer-songwriters, composers, and bands should understand the importance of protecting their intellectual property to safeguard their creative work.

In this essential guide, we'll demystify the process of copyrighting your music and help you register your compositions legally. This article will give you peace of mind to share your music with the world.

What is Music Copyright?

Music copyright is a form of legal protection granted to the creators of musical work. This protection covers the musical composition (the notes and structure) and the song lyrics. Once a piece of music is written down or recorded—it automatically becomes copyrighted, providing exclusive rights to the creator.

These rights protect creators from reproduction, music piracy, public performances, and creating derivatives from the original work. Essentially, music copyright aims to ensure that creators can control how their work is used and receive financial compensation for their efforts.

Copyright laws protect musicians and composers from unauthorized usage, enabling them to monetize creativity.

How do I copyright my music?

Musicians and creators must take the crucial step to protect their creative work to ensure they can control its use and receive appropriate compensation.

Here's a five-step guide on how to copyright your music:

  1. Create Your Music: Copyright protection applies to original works that are fixed in a tangible form. So, an artist must write, record, or save their music in a digital format.
  2. Creations are Automatically Under Copyright: When an artist creates music, it is automatically protected by copyright under U.S. law. It is recommended to post your original work somewhere as evidence of the the original work and the time it has been created.
  3. Registration (Optional, but Recommended): While copyright exists from the moment of creation, registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office provides several advantages:
    • Legal Evidence: Registration provides a public record of your copyright claim, which is crucial in enforcing your copyright.
    • Statutory Damages and Attorney Fees: If you need to sue for copyright infringement, having a registered work may allow you to claim statutory damages and recover attorney fees, which may not be possible if you haven't registered.
    • Registering Before Infringement: To sue for infringement, your work must be registered either before the infringement occurs or within three months of publication.
  4. How to Register Your Work:
    • Prepare: Gather all necessary information about the work, including the title, date of creation, and names of all authors.
    • Fill Out the Form: Complete the online registration form for copyright through the U.S. Copyright Office. Choose the appropriate form based on whether your work is published or unpublished.
    • Pay the Fee: You need to pay a filing fee online. Fees vary depending on whether the filing is done electronically or via mail and whether it's a single work or a collection.
    • Submit Copies of Your Work: Send the best edition for published work. If unpublished, send a copy of the work from when the copyright was first claimed. Electronic submissions can often be uploaded directly during the eCO registration process.
  5. Receive Your Certificate: Once processed, you will receive a certificate of registration from the U.S. Office confirming your copyright registration.

BONUS: Below is a list of organizations that protect music copyrights

  1. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP): One of the oldest and most well-known performance-rights organizations in the U.S., ASCAP licenses and collects performance royalties for its members.
  2. Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI): Like ASCAP, BMI is a performance-rights organization that represents songwriters, composers, and music publishers and collects performance royalties on their behalf.
  3. SESAC (formerly known as the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers): SESAC is a smaller but significant performance-rights organization that operates similarly to ASCAP and BMI, collecting royalties for public performances.
  4. SoundExchange: This organization manages the licensing and royalty collection for digital performances, including satellite radio, internet radio, and cable T.V. music channels.
  5. The Harry Fox Agency (HFA): The HFA is a major agency for mechanical licensing, which is the right to reproduce and distribute musical compositions in physical and digital form.
  6. Global Music Rights (GMR): GMR is a relatively newer performance-rights organization that negotiates licenses for performing its members' music.

These organizations play a vital role in protecting the rights of music creators by ensuring compensation when their music is used commercially by broadcasters, digital streaming services, and live venues.

How Long Does a Music Copyright Last?

The duration of a music copyright depends on several factors, including the time and circumstances of its creation. Here's a general overview:

  1. For Works created on or after January 1, 1978: copyright protection lasts for the author's life plus an additional 70 years after the author's death. The same applies if the musical content came from joint work – copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the last living co-author. For example, classical music works by individuals who passed away more than 70 years ago are generally considered in the public domain and thus out of copyright.
  2. Anonymous Works, Pseudonymous Works, and Works Made for Hire: For works where the authorship is anonymous, pseudonymous, or hired (to create music), the copyright lasts for 95 years from the year of first publication or 120 years from the year of creation, whichever expires first.
  3. Works Created and Published or Registered before January 1, 1978: The copyright was initially set for 28 years and can renewed for another 67 years, for a total of 95 years from the date of publication with the renewal. If not renewed, work could have entered the public domain.
  4. Works Created but Not Published or Registered before January 1, 1978: These are protected for the author's life plus 70 years, and in no case will expire earlier than December 31, 2002. If the work was published before this date, the term extends to December 31, 2047.

Understanding copyright duration is crucial for managing rights related to licensing, publishing, and other forms of commercial use. After the copyright expires, the work enters the public domain, meaning anyone can use it without needing permission from the copyright holders.

BONUS: Ways to determine if specific music work is copyrighted

  1. Research the Creation Date: Determine when the music was created or published. Corporate works or "works made for hire" lasts 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.
  2. Consult Copyright Databases: In the U.S., the Copyright Office's online database holds information about registered works. Globally, you can also check with international organizations like the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
  3. Look for Copyright Notices: On CDs, records, or in the liner notes of digital music, there may be a copyright notice, usually denoted by the © symbol followed by the year of publication and the name of the copyright owner.
  4. Contact Performance Rights Organizations: Organizations like ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, or their international counterparts maintain databases of works for which they collect performance royalties.
  5. Check Music Libraries: Some online music libraries provide information about the copyright status of songs. Libraries like IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library contain music generally in the public domain.
    • MusicBrainz: This is an open music encyclopedia that collects music metadata and can be used to research various details about music, including some copyright information.
    • ISWC-Net: TheInternationalStandardMusicalWorkCode(ISWC)databaseallows you to search for musical works and their authors.
    • PRS for Music: If you're in the U.K., PRS for Music has a database to search for information about music registered with the organization.
    • SOCAN(Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada): SOCAN's database can be a valuable resource for checking music copyrights in Canada.
  6. Professional Services: Use services provided by professionals or companies specializing in copyright searches and clearances. They can help you navigate complex cases where copyright ownership might be fragmented or disputed.
    • Consult the Record Label or Publisher: Contact the record label or music publisher associated with the music to receive definitive information on its copyright status.
    • Seek Legal Advice: When in doubt, especially for commercial projects, consult a lawyer specializing in intellectual property law.

Remember, even if a musical composition is public, a particular music recording may still be under copyright protection. Confirming the composition and recording statuses is essential when determining copyright.

Does Copyright Protect My Music Internationally?

The simple answer is yes - your music is generally protected internationally, thanks to various international treaties that ensure copyrights are recognized across borders. Here's how it works:

  1. Berne Convention: Most countries are members of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, which includes music. This treaty, which first came into effect in 1886 and has been revised several times, ensures that participating countries (currently 179 countries) recognize the copyrights of works from other member countries as if they were their own. This means that if you create a song in one member country, it is protected in all other member countries without additional registration.
  2. World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO): This is another key international body that helps protect copyrights internationally. WIPO administers several international copyright-related treaties and helps resolve disputes over international copyrights.
  3. TRIPS Agreement: The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) is part of the World Trade Organization system and further ties countries to recognize each other's copyrights with a minimum standard of protection aligned with the Berne Convention.
  4. National Treatment: Under these agreements, countries adhere to the principle of "national treatment," which means they must give the same copyright protection to foreign works from countries that are part of the treaty as to works created within their own borders.

However, there are a few considerations:

  • Not all countries are members of these treaties. While most industrialized nations are participants, there are exceptions. Specifically, in non-member countries, copyright protection may not be as enforceable.
  • The specifics of copyright law can vary from country to country, even among treaty signatories. For instance, the duration of copyright protection and what specific rights are protected can vary.

For most practical purposes, if you are dealing with countries that are members of the Berne Convention and other international copyright treaties, you can expect your music to be protected. However, if you're entering specific agreements or publishing in countries with unique copyright systems, consult a legal expert familiar with international copyright law.

BONUS: List of Music Copyright Laws

Music copyright laws in the U.S. are primarily governed by federal legislation. Here is a list of critical statutes and acts that form the legal framework for music copyright protection:

  1. Copyright Act of 1976: This is the primary law governing copyright protection in the United States. It establishes copyright protection for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.
  2. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998: This addresses copyright issues in the digital environment. Among other provisions, it criminalizes the production and dissemination of technology, devices, or services intended to circumvent copyright protections (also known as anti-circumvention provisions).
  3. Fair Use Doctrine: Codified as Section 107 of the Copyright Act, fair use allows limited use of copyrighted material without requiring permission from the rights holders. This doctrine is typically used for commentary, criticism, education, and research.
  4. The Music Modernization Act (MMA) of 2018: The MMA updates copyright law for the digital age, improves how songwriters and artists are paid for their music, establishes the Mechanical Licensing Collective, and provides a statutory right for sound recordings made before 1972.
  5. Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998: Often referred to as the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act," this law extended copyright terms in the U.S. It includes the provisions that set the current standard term of life of the author plus 70 years for individual works, and either 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation for corporate or "works made for hire" copyrights.
  6. Audio Home Recording Act of 1992: This act legalized home audio recording for private, non-commercial use and introduced the concept of royalty payments for digital audio tape sales to compensate copyright holders.
  7. No Electronic Theft (NET) Act of 1997: This law made it a federal crime to reproduce, distribute, or share copyrighted works, even without the intent of financial gain, thereby targeting illegal downloading and file-sharing on the internet.
  8. The Performance Rights Act: Though not fully enacted, it has been proposed to create a performance right for sound recordings on terrestrial radio. It also requires radio stations to pay royalties to record labels, artists, songwriters, and publishers.
  9. The Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988: This made U.S. copyright law compliant with the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, ensuring international protection of U.S. works.
  10. These laws and acts provide the legal foundation that protects the rights of creators and copyright holders in the music industry, ensuring they can control and be compensated for using their works.

What's the Difference Between Copyright and Publishing Rights?

Understanding the distinction between copyright and publishing rights is essential for anyone involved in creating, producing, or distributing music. Here's a breakdown of the key differences:

  1. Copyright:
    • Definition: Copyright is a legal right automatically granted when a creative work is put into a tangible form. This right is given to the creator of the work, which can include the composer, lyricist, or arranger in the case of music.
    • Rights Included: Copyright ownership gives the creator the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, or license the work. It also allows the copyright owner to restrict others from using the work without permission.
    • Duration: As previously noted, in most cases, copyright lasts for the author's life plus an additional 70 years after death. For works made for hire, the duration is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.
  2. Publishing Rights
    • Definition: Publishing rights refer to the rights involved in producing and distributing musical compositions. These rights are typically managed by music publishers or the authors themselves if they choose to self-publish.
    • Rights Included: Publishing rights include the right to reproduce the song in printed form, to make arrangements, and to license the use of the music for various purposes (e.g., mechanical licenses, synchronization licenses). Publishers also collect and distribute royalties from these rights to the copyright owners.
    • Revenue Streams: Publishers help monetize the composition by facilitating the use of the music in recordings, public performances, radio, television, and film. They collect royalties from these uses and distribute them to the copyright holders after taking a cut for their services.

Overlap and Interaction

  • Ownership vs. Administration: A copyright owner may own the publishing rights if they publish their music. However, many copyright owners assign the administration of these rights to a publishing company. This assignment involves handling the business side of copyright (like collecting royalties) but does not necessarily transfer copyright ownership.
  • Economic Benefits: Both copyright and publishing rights are crucial for generating income. Copyright owners earn royalties when their work is reproduced, performed, or broadcast. Publishers earn money by licensing the works they manage and take a percentage of the royalties in exchange for their services.

In essence, while copyright protects the creator's intellectual property, publishing rights pertain to the handling and monetization of that property. Musicians, writers, and publishers must work together effectively to ensure that all parties benefit from the music's use and that the rights of the creators are upheld.

Can I Use Copyrighted Music in My Project?

This question is common among creators who want to use existing music in their projects, including films, videos, and other media.

Using copyrighted music in your project requires careful consideration of copyright laws to ensure that you do not infringe on the rights of the original creators. Here's a step-by-step guide on how you can legally use copyrighted music in your projects, such as films, videos, and other media:

  1. Determine the Type of Rights Needed: Depending on how you plan to use the music, you may need one or more of the following:
    • Synchronization License: This is required to sync music with visual elements in films, videos, or presentations.
    • Mechanical License: This is needed if you are reproducing the music physically or digitally.
    • Public Performance License: Necessary if your project will be played publicly, including on websites, at live events, or on radio/T.V.
    • Master Use License: Required in addition to a synchronization license if you use a pre-recorded version of a song; it grants permission to use a specific song recording.
  2. Contact the Copyright Holder or Licensing Representative: To obtain the necessary licenses, you'll need to contact:
    • The composer or songwriter for the synchronization and mechanical licenses.
    • The record label if you need a master use license for a specific recording.
    • Performing rights organizations such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC if you need a public performance license.
  3. Negotiate Terms and Pay for the License: Once you've contacted the relevant parties, you must negotiate the terms of use. This includes how long the music will be used, in what context, and in what territories. The cost of licensing music can vary widely depending on these factors and the popularity of the music.
  4. Obtain the License in Writing: Getting licensing agreements helps avoid future disputes. Ensure that the scope of the license covers all your needs.
  5. Consider Royalty-Free or Creative Commons Music: If the cost or process of licensing copyrighted music is too prohibitive, consider using royalty-free music or music available under Creative Commons licenses. These tracks are often more accessible and can be used with fewer restrictions. However, always check the specific terms of the Creative Commons license to ensure compliance.
  6. Check for Existing Agreements: If you are producing content for a client or a company, check if they already have blanket licenses covering certain music.
  7. Be Wary of Copyright Claims: If you post your project on platforms like YouTube, be aware that your content might be subject to automated copyright claims even if you have obtained the necessary licenses. In such cases, you may need to provide proof of licensing to the platform.

By following these steps, you can ensure that you use copyrighted music in your projects legally and ethically, respecting the rights of the creators and avoiding legal issues.

How Do I Handle Copyright Infringement?

Handling copyright infringement is crucial for protecting your intellectual property rights as a musician or rights holder. Here are the steps you should take if you suspect that your copyrighted work has been used without permission:

  1. Confirm Infringement: First, ensure that the work is indeed under copyright protection and that the usage in question qualifies as infringement. This involves confirming that the work was used without your permission and does not fall under exceptions like fair use.
  2. Document the Infringement: Gather all evidence of the infringement, including screenshots, URLs, physical copies, or any other form that proves the unauthorized use of your copyrighted material.
  3. Contact a Copyright Attorney: It's advisable to consult with an attorney specializing in copyright law to understand the specifics of your case and the best legal avenues to pursue. An attorney can guide whether it's a clear infringement case and the likelihood of a successful legal outcome.
  4. Issue a Cease-and-Desist Letter: Often, the first formal step is to send a cease-and-desist letter to the infringer. A cease-and-desist letter formally requests to stop unauthorized use and remove copyrighted material from all platforms. This letter usually includes a deadline for compliance and warns of legal actions if the demands are unmet.
  5. Negotiate Settlement: If the infringer responds to the cease-and-desist letter, there might be an opportunity to negotiate a settlement. This could involve compensatory payment for the past use and potentially a licensing agreement for future use.
  6. File a Copyright Infringement Claim: If the infringer does not comply with the cease-and-desist letter or a settlement cannot be reached, the next step may be to file a copyright infringement claim in court. Your attorney can help file the lawsuit and represent you throughout the legal proceedings.
  7. DMCA Takedown Notice: You can file a DMCA takedown notice if the infringement occurs online, such as on social media platforms or websites. This is a tool provided by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that requires online platforms to remove content that infringes on copyright upon notification.
  8. Monitor Your Works: After addressing the immediate infringement, it's wise to set up a monitoring system to track the use of your work online and in other mediums. Several services and tools can help detect unauthorized uses of your work, allowing for quicker action in the future.
  9. Educate About Copyrights: Sometimes, infringement happens due to a lack of understanding about copyright laws. Educating peers, colleagues, and the public about the importance of copyrights and their implications can prevent potential infringements.
  10. Maintain Proper Licensing Agreements: Ensure all your licensing agreements are clear, up-to-date, and thorough to avoid ambiguities about the rights and uses of your copyrighted material.

These steps can help you effectively manage and respond to copyright infringements, ensuring your rights are protected and you are compensated appropriately for using your creative works.

What Are Mechanical Royalties?

Mechanical royalties are a type of music royalty that composers, songwriters, and publishers earn when their musical compositions are reproduced in physical or digital form. This includes when music is copied onto physical media, such as C.D.s and vinyl records, or downloaded or streamed on digital music platforms.

Here's a more detailed look at how mechanical royalties work:

  1. Origin: The term "mechanical" originates from the early 20th century with the advent of mechanical reproductions of music through player pianos, which used piano rolls to play music mechanically. The concept has since evolved to encompass all forms of mechanical reproduction.
  2. How They Are Generated: Mechanical royalties are generated every time a song is physically or digitally reproduced. This includes:
    • C.D.s and Vinyl: When a song is replicated onto physical formats like C.D.s or vinyl records.
    • Digital Downloads: Each purchase of a song through services like iTunes.
    • Streaming: When a song is streamed on platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music, etc. Although streaming also involves performance royalties, there is a mechanical component due to the song being digitally replicated during the streaming process.
  3. Collection and Distribution: In the United States, mechanical royalties are typically collected by mechanical rights organizations such as the Harry Fox Agency (HFA), which distributes them to songwriters and publishers. In other countries, similar functions are performed by corresponding organizations.
  4. Rate of Payment: The rate at which mechanical royalties are paid is set by law in some countries, such as the United States, where the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) sets statutory rates. For example, the current statutory mechanical royalty rate in the U.S. for physical formats and digital downloads is 9.1 cents for recordings of songs 5 minutes or less and 1.75 cents per minute or fraction thereof for those exceeding 5 minutes. Streaming services pay mechanical royalties based on a complicated formula that includes the service's revenue and the total number of streams.
  5. Mechanical Licensing: Before a song can be reproduced, the entity wishing to reproduce the song must obtain a mechanical license. This license is what entitles the composer or songwriter to mechanical royalties. In digital music, services usually secure blanket licenses to cover all the music they use.
  6. Challenges with Digital Music: The rise of digital music has complicated the tracking and distribution of mechanical royalties, particularly with streaming. Ensuring accurate payment involves complex data management and necessitates sophisticated technology to track uses across global digital platforms.

How do Cover Songs Work Under Copyright Law?

Covering someone else's music and releasing your version legally involves understanding and navigating copyright law to ensure you're not infringing on the original creator's rights. Here's how cover songs work under copyright law and the steps you should take to release and monetize cover versions legally:

  1. Understand Copyright in Cover Songs: When you create a cover song, you're producing a new performance of someone else's song. The song's melody, lyrics, and fundamental character remain protected by copyright, which the songwriter or their publisher typically owns.
  2. Obtain a Mechanical License: Before you record and release a cover song, you must obtain a mechanical license from the copyright holder, usually the songwriter or their publisher. This license allows you to reproduce and distribute the song legally. In the U.S., you can often obtain these licenses through the Harry Fox Agency, Music Reports Inc., or similar licensing organizations. These agencies manage the rights to millions of songs and can grant you the permission needed for a set fee per unit manufactured or sold.
  3. Pay for the License: The cost of a mechanical license in the United States is set by statutory rate (as of 2021, it's 9.1 cents per copy for songs five minutes or less and 1.75 cents per minute for songs over five minutes). However, rates can vary if you negotiate directly with the copyright owner and may differ in other countries.
  4. No Need for Permission to Perform: Covering a song live doesn't usually require permission from the copyright holder, as venues typically cover this with a blanket license through performance rights organizations like ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC in the U.S. However, if you plan to record and distribute that performance, you will need a mechanical license.
  5. Digital and Streaming Services: If you want to release your cover version on streaming platforms like Spotify or Apple Music, you still need a mechanical license. Digital service providers usually handle royalties for streaming or digital downloads through agreements with mechanical licensing agencies. Still, having your licensing sorted out beforehand is prudent to avoid any legal complications.
  6. Synchronization Rights: You must obtain synchronization rights separately if you plan to use your cover song in a video (for example, in a music video or a film). This is different from a mechanical license and must be negotiated directly with the copyright holder.
  7. Release and Monetization: Once you have secured the necessary licenses, you can legally release and monetize your cover version. Any sales, streaming, or other uses of the song that generate revenue will require you to pay royalties according to the terms of your mechanical license.
  8. Respect the Moral Rights: Some jurisdictions also recognize moral rights, which may allow the original songwriter to object if they feel your cover song misrepresents their original work. It's rare but possible and something to be aware of, especially in international contexts.

What is Fair Use, And Does it Apply to Music?

Fair use is a critical legal doctrine under U.S. copyright law that allows limited use of copyrighted material without needing permission from the rights holders. This doctrine supports freedom of expression, particularly in criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Understanding how fair use applies to music can help determine when it's legally permissible to use copyrighted music without direct authorization.

Key factors in fair use:

  1. Purpose and Character of the Use: The use must be for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. Transformative uses (which add new expression or meaning to the original and aren't just mere reproductions) are more likely to be considered fair use.
  2. Nature of the Copyrighted Work: Using a factual work (less protected) versus a highly creative work (more protected, like music) can affect the fair use analysis. However, published works are more likely to be considered fair use than unpublished works.
  3. Amount and Substantiality: This considers the quantity of the work used and the qualitative importance of the portion used. Using a small, less significant part of a music track might favor fair use, especially if the portion used is not the "heart" of the work (e.g., the most recognizable section or an iconic riff or lyric).
  4. Effect on the Market: If the use could compete with or diminish the market for the original work, it's less likely to be considered fair use. This includes considering whether the use could serve as a market substitute for the original work or potentially harm its future market.

Examples of fair use in music

  • Educational Uses: Playing a short song clip in a classroom to discuss musical technique or cultural context might qualify as fair use, especially if the use is transformative and does not replace the need for students to purchase the music.
  • Music Reviews: Critically discussing a song in a review, where short excerpts are used to illustrate points, can be fair use. This is particularly true when the review adds new expressions or information to the original and does not provide a substitute for the original music.
  • Parodies: Parodying a song can be considered fair use if it mimics the original to make a critical point about it or something else (as seen in cases like Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., where 2 Live Crew's parody of Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman" was ruled as fair use).

When Fair Use Doesn't Apply

  • Copying whole songs for a public performance is generally not fair use.
  • Using music as background for videos or at events without change or comment is likely not fair use.
  • Creating mixes or derivative works that don't significantly transform the original typically requires permission via licensing.

Fair use determinations are precise and can vary by case. If there's significant uncertainty, it's wise to seek legal advice or obtain the necessary permissions to avoid potential copyright infringement.

We hope this guide answered some questions and uncovered the path to securing copyright protection for your music.

Remember, copyrighting your music isn't just a legal formality—it's a strategic step towards validating your work as a professional artist and maintaining control over how it's used and distributed. Whether you're recording your first track or a seasoned musician, taking legal measures can make all the difference in your artistic journey.

Don't hesitate to consult legal experts to tailor your copyright approach to your unique needs. You're ready to share your music with the world, confident that your creative rights are secured!

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