Being a musician isn’t all about having talent and creativity. You’ll need to know some legal and technical tools of the trade, too, like how to copyright a song.
Imagine this: you’ve written a great song, and started to build your fan base online. You’re excited to share your song with them, and it gets a great response. But then, you find a video of a musician in another city using your lyrics in their own song -- and without even crediting you.
Knowing how to copyright a song legally protects you from this type of intellectual property theft. Although technically, your song is copyright protected as soon as you put it out there, you won’t get the full protections (like the right to sue) until you know how to copyright your song. Keep reading to learn how to protect your art!
A History of Copyright Law
People didn’t always have the option to learn how to copyright a song. For many centuries, art was fair game in the eyes of the law.
You can thank early book printing for creating the concept of copyright. In the late 1400s, the printing press revolutionized the way information and art could spread. As the printing press became more popular, the authorities started to look for ways to control what could get published.
How it started
At first, this concept of control was tied to censorship by the government and church. But over time, it morphed into the first version of modern copyright law. In 1710, the first copyright statute, called "An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned" (or the Statute of Anne) became law. This law got started in Britain, but the Copyright Act of 1790 followed to bring copyright law to the United States.
These early copyright laws gave authors ownership over their work for 14 years. If the author was still alive when the copyright expired, they could renew it for another 14 years.
That created the first concept of “public domain,” as well as the first copyright laws. The copyrights intentionally had an expiration date. After that date passed, the literature would again belong to the public.
Most writers didn’t benefit much from these first copyright laws. In order to get readers, they had to sell their work, along with its copyright, to a publisher or seller. However, these early laws set the stage for the future.
In the centuries since, copyright law has changed to protect other forms of art, apply to new technology, and offer longer copyright terms. Today, in addition to books, everything from maps to movies to music falls under copyright law.
Copyright Law Today
Today, when you create a piece of art like a song, you have exclusive rights to it under modern copyright law. Even if you don’t know how to copyright a song, the law automatically gives you some protection.
Copyright law encourages artists to make art, by giving them the exclusive right to make, perform, distribute, or sell their work. Today’s copyrights generally don’t expire for a set number of years, typically many years after the artist dies. For example, this year, copyrighted art from 1923 becomes public domain. The Copyright Act of 1976 created these modern copyright laws.
Why Copyright Your Song?
Is it worthwhile to learn how to copyright a song? Let’s take a look at what copyrighting a song gives you, above and beyond the standard copyright laws.
If copyright law didn’t exist, there would be virtually no way to make a name for yourself as an artist, since anyone could steal and take credit for your work. But under copyright law, you’re entitled to six exclusive rights for your song anytime you record one. You have the right to:
- Make copies of your song
- Perform your song
- Perform a recording of your song
- Make derivatives of the song
- Display your work
- Distribute your song
Some of these rights apply more directly to music, such as the right to perform a song. Others, like the right to display your work, apply more often to other art forms. Still, it’s possible to find cases where all of these copyright rights could apply to music.
Of course, other people can do these things with your song -- but they need your permission to do it legally. Most artists won’t permit these things without receiving some kind of payment.
You don’t need to do anything to get these six rights: they’re automatically yours by law once your song is recorded or just written down. However, when you know how to copyright a song, you can give yourself an added layer of protection.
When you copyright a song, you’re entitled to damages and attorney fees if someone violates the copyright law. It's much easier to prove that you own the song if you have it officially copyrighted. So even though you technically have copyright protection no matter what, it’s worth knowing how to copyright a song.
How to Copyright a Song: A Step-by-Step Guide
Ready to protect your music from theft? Here are the steps you’ll need to take.
Create a recording
The song can’t exist only in your head if you want to copyright it. You’ll need to make a sound recording, write down the music or lyrics (or both), or otherwise make a hard copy of your song. For music, you’ll either have a digital or hard-copy recording, or an on-paper version.
Gather your information
In addition to the recorded material, it’s helpful to gather some other information before moving forward.
For example, gather the relevant details of the song, such as your artist name and the album it appears on. If the song has more than one writer or producer, you’ll need the split sheet for the song. A split sheet identifies the people who “own” the song together and covers the percentage of the song each of them owns.
Visit the U.S. Copyright Office online
While it’s possible to register your copyright via snail mail, it’s faster and cheaper to get the work done online. Visit copyright.gov, and select “Register a Copyright” from your options on the front page.
Next, hit the “Log in to eCO” button. Create your account by selecting “New user” if you haven’t been there before. When you register, you’ll need to give your name, address, phone number, and choose the way you’d like to get contacted.
Make your copyright registration
With your online account, you can create as many copyright registrations as you need to. Click on “Register a new claim” to get started.
You’ll need to select whether you’re registering a single work or multiple works. Select “Sound recording” or “Performing arts” as appropriate. The “Performing arts” option applies to work that’s not a full recording, but just the lyrics or the music.
Click on “New” to copyright your art, and fill in all the required information. Always double-check the instructions to make sure you’ve filled everything out correctly. If you opt to do the process by mail, you’ll need to fill out this information by hand instead.
Pay the fee
The automatic copyright rights you’re granted by law are free. But officially registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office does cost money.
You’ll need to pay the fee before you upload your song or recording. The system accepts debit or credit cards, as well as electronic checks. You can also set up a deposit account with the copyright office if you’ll be copyrighting lots of work.
If you register a copyright by mail, you’ll have the option to pay by money order or check instead.
Upload your song
Now, you can finally upload your song’s files. Or you can mail the copies of your song in paper form or as recording. Sometimes, you can digitally upload the song file even if you register by mail.
If you register online, there’s no limit to how many songs you can upload (though you’ll have to pay the proper fees for multiple works). There’s also a size limit for the uploads, so you might need to compress your songs so that they fit.
Once you’ve uploaded the song or songs, click on the “Upload complete” button, and your side of the process is finished. However, the registration process usually takes a few months to finish after you begin it. Electronic copyright registrations get processed a little faster than registrations by mail.
Your copyright becomes effective on the date that the U.S. Copyright Office accepts your application, fees, and copies of the song. Now, you've completely protected your intellectual property.
What You Can’t Copyright
It’s possible to copyright your lyrics, or music, or both. You can even copyright individual sound recordings of a song, in addition to the song itself. However, you can’t copyright smaller parts of the song, like the chord progression or title.
The song you copyright doesn’t have to be brand-new. It just has to be your own original, creative work. If you create a new version of one of your songs, it’s worthwhile to copyright the new version, too.
What to Do If Someone Steals Your Song
Knowing how to copyright a song adds a new layer of legal protection. However, it doesn’t mean no one will ever try to steal your work. When this happens, what should you do?
The good news is that your copyright registration makes the process much easier. If someone tries to claim your intellectual property as their own, here are the steps you should take.
Gather the evidence
Pull together the proof that you own the song, such as the recordings you used to register it for copyright. If you have evidence of how the thief may have found your song, this can also help support your case.
Gather information about the copycat song, too, such as any awards or accolades it gets. If the song never gains a following, it might not be worth the trouble it would take to sue for damages. And if you let the song become more successful before you sue, you could get paid more in damages.
Of course, you shouldn’t sit back and wait while someone else profits off your work. But you also don’t want to waste your time with an expensive lawsuit unless you know it will be worthwhile.
Hire a lawyer
Next, you’ll need to hire a lawyer to help you move forward. Don't just take the first lawyer you find. Look for someone with experience with intellectual property law, especially in the entertainment industry.
Find a musicologist
The musicologist will analyze your song and the competing song to find whether or not your song was really stolen. They’ll also determine how much of the new song is a copy of yours.
Musicologists are experts in both music and intellectual property law. They’ll help you see whether or not you have a case, as well as helping you make a compelling argument that intellectual property theft actually happened.
You, the lawyer, and the musicologist will form a team to create a case that will hold up in court. And your registered copyright forms an important piece your case. If you’re in this situation, you’ll be glad that you learned how to copyright a song.
Ready to Protect Your Art?
Knowing how to copyright a song will help you become a successful musician. Whether you aim to play for a local or an international audience, there’s always the risk that someone will steal your work. And modern technology makes copyright infringement that much easier.
Fortunately, that technology also makes it easier to register for a copyright. You don’t need to mail copies of your song -- you just need an internet connection, a little bit of time, and the fees for registration.
Is knowing how to copyright a song new to you? This guide will help you protect your art, even if you’ve never done it before. Let us know how it goes for you in the comments!