How Do I Copyright My Music?

copyright-symbol-2As we discussed in the post, What is Music Publishing?, the copyright framework is the underlying basis that allows creative people to make a living from their creativity. Without this framework there would be no financial reason for a music publisher to exist and further, no financial reason for a songwriter or composer to create. Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.

“That is all well and good but how do I copyright my music?”

What can be Copyrighted?

Before you start, you should really decide whether your work is eligible for copyrighting. Generally, a copyright protects:

  • books
  • songs
  • photographs
  • other creative works

But, if that works can also be considered one of these categories, it will NOT be copyrightable:

  • Titles, names, short phrases and slogans
  • Ideas and concepts that are not expressed in a tangible work
  • Blank forms
  • Works that have not been written or recorded
  • Works to which you have not contributed anything original or creative
  • Useful articles

If you would like the full-blown, U.S. Copyright Office explanation of copyright basics, click here.

Ok, but how do I copyright my music?

Good question. If you have done any searching on the internet about copyrights, you have probably found a lot of bad information at worst and probably a lot of confusing information at best.

Ready for the good news? Your work is under copyright protection from the moment it was created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.

[wpcol_1quarter id=”” class=”” style=””]A work is “fixed” in a tangible medium of expression when its embodiment in a copy or phonorecord, by or under the authority of the author, is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than transitory duration. A work consisting of sounds, images, or both, that are being transmitted, is “fixed” for purposes of this title if a fixation of the work is being made simultaneously with its transmission. —> U.S. Copyright Office, Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code: Circular 92: Chapter 1

Don’t freak out just yet. Here is the good news without all the legal speak. All that the above means is that as soon as you create a song that is your own original work, without samples of other person’s work in it, all you need to do is one (I suggest both) of two things:

  • record the song
  • write down the lyrics and music (chords and melody)

and you become, right there and then, the exclusive and sole copyright holder to that song. All the rights that go along with being the copyright holder are yours as well. What could be simpler? (If your work has samples of other people’s work, the issue get a bit complicated. We will deal with this issue in a later post.)

What if I am part of a band?

Another good question. If you are a part of a band, or even a songwriting duo, you must also decide the ownership of the song as a fraction. For instance, if a couple of blokes named John and Paul happen to write a song together, the could simply fix the song to a tangible medium of expression, write out the lyrics, chords and melodies and at the bottom of that written page simply write “Lennon/McCartney” at the bottom. A 50/50 split in ownership of the song.

Of course you could be more specific. In fact it would probably be better if you were. If a whole band were included in the copyright, one could simply write at the bottom of a song:

J. Lennon, P. McCartney, G. Harrison, R. Starr, Copyright 1966, 25% each

There is no correct formula, it is whatever you as a band decide. Bands such as REM who had four band members would divide their songs four ways regardless of the author.

Is there anything else?

Boy, you are just full of great questions today! Technically no, if you have recorded the song and have written it out on a sheet of paper with lyrics, chords, melodies and given it a “homemade” copyright stamp at the bottom with credit and fractional ownership, you are good. The work is copyrighted.


This approach is legal and binding. The problem you may encounter is when there is a dispute. The dispute could be over ownership or even the date. Money does strange things to people. I know what you are thinking.

“That won’t happen to us, we are family!”

Well, it happens. It might not to you and I hope that is doesn’t. But the fact is that it does happen. But there are a few easy methods you can follow to protect your work even in case of a dispute.

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is the research library of the United States Congress, the de facto national library of the United States of America, and the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. – Wikipedia
The best way to protect your work is by registering it with the Library of Congress. There is a nominal fee to register but it is  cheaper than a court case. The basic process to register your work with the Library of Congress is this:

  1. Complete the application
  2. Include the correct fee (About $35 if done electronically, $65 if by mail)
  3. Include non-returnable copies (usually, one for unpublished and two for published)
  4. Send the package to the Library of Congress (If by mail)
  5. The Copyright Office receives your package, and your registration becomes effective on that day
  6. The financial department processes your payment
  7. They check your application and deposit and make sure they’re acceptable and meet the requirements of Copyright law and regulations
  8. Your registration gets a number and a certificate of registration is issued. You’ll receive that certificate in the mail about 4 months after your package is submitted
  9. Cataloguers create an online, searchable public record of your registration


Performing Rights Organizations

A performing rights organization (PRO) helps songwriters and publishers to collect the royalties for the use of their works. The PROs mainly deal with the performance royalties type of publishing revenue.

As a songwriter, composer, or lyricist, you are owed a performance royalty any time your music is played on radio stations (terrestrial, satellite, and internet), used on TV shows or commercials, or performed in live venues.

Those performance royalties are paid by radio stations, venues, and TV networks to PROs like ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and SOCAN (in Canada) who then distribute the money to their affiliated songwriters and publishers less a fee, of course. PROs do not concern themselves with mechanical royalties (record, cd and digital sales of recorded works) so do not make the mistake of thinking they are a one stop shop.

For a complete list of copyright collection societies worldwide, click HERE. Each PRO will have their own submission processes, so find the one that is the right fit for you and contact them directly for guidance. If you register your song(s) with the Library of Congress and a PRO you will have a great advantage if someone makes claims to your work and you will likely win the dispute.

Poor Man’s Copyright

Perhaps you have heard of artists mailing themselves a song using the U.S. Postal Service. This is a legitimate way of creating a copyright. The reason people do this is because the postmark on the envelope sets the existence of the work in time. This way, if someone claims to have written it before you, you can just pull out your unopened envelope and prove your date of creation. Of course, the envelope has to stay unopened. Once the letter is opened it ceases to be a good form of proof to the date of the song. The seal of the envelope is the proof.

Although this is a good way to prove a copyright once, the best way to show a creation date remains to register your song with the Library of Congress.

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