Songwriting Copyright Basics
… and by “basic,” I mean really, really basic. So, please, I don’t want any industry pros giving me static for such a simplistic treatment of such a complex topic. This article could easily be 300+ pages, but is intended to give the uninitiated a broad-brush-strokes overview within a reasonable word count.
Copyrights, and copyright law, is incredibly complex and one of the most confusing and misunderstood areas of the music business, particularly when you get into how, and how much, rights-holders get paid, which I will discuss in future articles. Fortunately, there are plenty of great resources available for those who have the inclination to dig deeper and educate themselves. I urge everyone who is serious about being in the music business, whether as a career or a hobby, to learn as much as they can about the business; if for no other reason, so that they can have an intelligent conversation with their entertainment attorney or manager and be in a better position to make informed decisions on the advice they receive.
How do you get a copyright?
So, you wrote a song, and you’re certain that it’s going to be the biggest smash hit since Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” And of course, being responsible about your music career, you want to protect your brilliant creation. But just how? How do you get a copyright? Well, if you sing your brand-new song in the shower, sing it to your cat, grab a guitar and sing and play it for your grandmother, or on a street corner – no copyright. But … the instant you put your song in tangible form, meaning you write it down, or record it, or make a video of yourself performing it – congratulations, you’ve got a copyright in your song! That’s it … there is nothing mystical about it.
Your copyright gives you, among other things, the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute the song, perform the song in public, and create derivative works from that song. You have the exclusive right to record your song and put it out to earn money from sales, streaming, radio, live performances, etc.
The registration myth.
So, you may ask, “why do I always hear that I have to register my songs with the US Library of Congress to get a copyright?” It’s a myth. As noted above, your copyright springs to life the minute you put your song in tangible form. But that doesn’t mean registering your copyright isn’t important. First, it is worth noting that in many foreign countries, copyrights are created by registration. But here in the good ‘ole USA, there is a distinction between the creation of the copyright, which is automatic, and registration.
So why register your copyright?
Registration of your copyrights is very important because it gives you several additional important rights. First and foremost, it gives you the right to sue someone in federal court for copyright infringement if they steal your song (or any part of your song). If you haven’t registered the copyright you cannot file suit (it’s actually more complicated than that, but the complexities are beyond the scope of this article; when in doubt, ask your attorney). Second, registration of your copyright (as long as you don’t wait too long to register) creates a legal presumption that you are the valid copyright owner. What this means is that if you sue, or are sued, for copyright infringement, the other party has to prove that you are not the rightful copyright owner, rather than you having to prove that you are (in law, we call this shifting the burden of proof, and it can be a big deal in determining how difficult it will be to win your case). Finally, registration gives you the option, if you sue for infringement, of receiving statutory damages (pre-determined dollar amounts for infringement set by federal statute) rather than having to prove actual damages, which can be difficult to do. Make sure you register your copyrights, you’ll thank me later if someone steals your song, or accuses you of stealing theirs.
THOMAS ANDREW PLAYER, JD, MBA
Player Entertainment Law
Disclaimer: This column is intended to give general information only, and should not be considered legal advice. Many situations or circumstances may appear similar, but in fact differ in ways that are legally significant. Always consult with an attorney about your specific circumstances. Thomas Player, Player Entertainment Law, and the publisher assume no responsibility for actions taken by readers based on information provided in this article.