Your music is more than just lyrics, melodies, hooks, and waveforms. 

It’s intellectual property!

Do you record your own tracks? Do you write your own songs? Then YOU control your music copyright. (Assuming you haven’t signed away certain rights to a label or publisher). 

The flow of money through the music business is mostly based on copyright. So understanding the power of music copyright can significantly impact your career, helping you control, protect, and monetize your original work. 

In this guide, we’ll delve into:

  • The essentials of music copyright
  • The different kinds of music copyright
  • How to register the copyright for your music
  • And how to leverage your rights to generate income as an artist, songwriter, or producer

Let’s begin with some copyright basics.

What is music copyright?

Copyright is a collection of rights associated with the ownership of creative works.

According to the US Copyright Office, copyright is a type of intellectual property that “protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.”

Copyright grants exclusive privileges to the creator(s) and rights-holder(s) of a particular work for a limited time.

With music, you’ll encounter two kinds of copyright. One is related to recordings. The other is related to songwriting or composing. If you create your own recordings, write your own songs, or both, you should know your rights.

Your rights include:

  • The right to reproduce that work
  • The right to be credited as the work’s creator (the “right of attribution”)
  • The right to approve or deny “derivative works”
  • The right to distribute the work
  • The right to perform the work publicly
  • The right to license the work

If you’re a self-releasing musician, it’s simple. You OWN the songs you write. And you OWN the tracks you record.

Those assets are often referred to as the “composition” and the “sound recording.” And your ownership of a song or track empowers you to exploit your copyright. Meaning, you can put your copyright to work.

  • Earn money from the usage of your music
  • Have control over how your music is used*
  • Collect damages in the event that someone uses your music unlawfully
  • Transfer rights to another entity via sale, licensing, or assigning

* You CANNOT prevent another artist from performing your song live or distributing a cover version of your song, assuming you’ve already commercially released that song. However, you must be paid the associated publishing royalties for those usages.

  1. Composition Copyright— Related to the music and lyrics that underlie any particular recording or performance of a song. The business of making money from composition copyrights is called Music Publishing.
  2. Sound Recording Copyright — Related to a specific recorded version of a composition. The business of making money from sound recording copyrights is often thought of as the domain of record labels, though the rise of independent music over the last 30 years has altered that assumption to some degree.

Composition copyrights are typically owned by songwriters and publishers. If you write original music and have never signed away those rights to a publisher or other entity, you own your songs!

Sound Recordings copyrights are usually owned by artists or labels. If you self-produced your music, or if you funded your own recording project and never signed-away those rights to a label or other entity, you own your tracks!

Copyright, as discussed above, is a bundle of rights associated with the making and ownership of a sufficiently-original creative work. 

Trademark is a name, phrase, symbol, or logo closely associated with the provider of a good, service, or artwork. When it comes to music, your band name could be trademarked, whereas a song or recording has a copyright. In the USA, you can apply to obtain a registered trademark at https://www.uspto.gov/

Patent is the protection of inventions and processes, as well as improvements to those processes. Patents are meant to forward the interests of technological innovation. If you came up with a new kind of musical instrument, for instance, you may be able to patent it. 

Technically, you own your musical copyright the moment you capture the composition or recording in a fixed medium. This could be something as crude as a voice memo on your phone. Or typing your lyrics to a friend in an email. And in many countries, this is sufficient to fully establish your copyright. However, things are slightly different in the USA.

Despite owning your copyright from the moment your music provably exists, it’s still advisable in the USA to register your copyright. This step helps you secure the most protection for your work.

You’ll want to register with the U.S. Copyright Office. Because registration is necessary before you can file a lawsuit against any entity who’s infringed upon your rights. 

By registering your copyright early (preferably before your music is released publicly), you’ll have additional benefits in the event of intentional infringement. This includes rewards of up to $150,000 and attorney fees. 

However, approval of a formal registration can take a while. So I don’t usually advise that people WAIT for approval before releasing music.

There is no such thing as comprehensive, global copyright protection. Each country has its own laws and practices. 

But through international treaties such as the Berne Convention, partner nations can help to enforce one another’s copyright protections for citizens. 

If creators outside the United States want full protection in the event of infringement that happens within the USA, they can register their copyright with the USCO. 

There are some exceptions to the rule, but in general, copyright lasts for the duration of the author’s life PLUS another 70 years. For songs or recordings with multiple creators, copyright protection expires 70 years after the death of the last-surviving author.

The “poor man’s copyright” involves mailing a composition or recording to yourself via registered mail with a dated postmark. Then you leave the package sealed. If your copyright is infringed upon, you bring the unopened package before a judge.

Today this practice is somewhat obsolete. Because while “poor man’s copyright” may provide some evidence that your work was created before the infringing work, the Supreme Court of the USA ruled that in order to get legal protection, you need to register your copyright with the USCO.  

It’s been stated a few times above that you’ll receive additional protections from registering your copyright. But here’s a more detailed explanation of those benefits:

If you file your registration AFTER your music has been used unlawfully, you can’t bring a lawsuit against the infringer until the application is approved by the USCO. This can take between 3-9 months, assuming there are no other issues with your registration forms. 

After approval you can file a lawsuit. And in the event that you win the case, you are only entitled to receive between $200 and $30,000 per work. In some instances, that won’t even cover your legal fees. 

Contrast that with an early registration. You can file a lawsuit immediately in federal or small claims court, and no attorney is required. You also stand to receive up to $150,000 in damages for intentional copyright infringement. Plus attorney fees. 

To register your copyright in the USA, visit the U.S. Copyright Office website.

Go to their registration portal and submit the proper form from the options below:

  • The PA form — short for “performing arts” — can be used to register a composition (song and lyrics) or collection of songs. 
  • The SR form — short for “sound recording” — can be used to register… a sound recording (the recorded track or album).

IMPORTANT: If the creators and owners are exactly the same for every song in a collection, you can use the SR form to register BOTH the sound recording(s) and the composition(s) at the same time. 

As the owner of your work, there are various avenues to generate income, including:

Performance Royalties

This is a form of music publishing royalty.

It’s owed to songwriters and publishers when their compositions are played on the radio, performed in public, and more.

To collect these royalties, you should affiliate yourself with your country’s performing rights organization (PRO) such as:

Mechanical Royalties

This is another form of music publishing royalty, owed to songwriters and publishers when their compositions are streamed, downloaded, or mechanically reproduced in physical formats such as CD and vinyl.

Many PROs do NOT collect mechanicals, so you should affiliate yourself with mechanical collection societies such as the MLC

Sound Recording Royalties

As the owner of your sound recordings, you control “master rights” and can get paid when your tracks are streamed, downloaded, synced in TV or film, and sold on CD or vinyl.

You can think of these royalties as the typical revenue sources of labels. Because, as a self-releasing artist, you are acting as your own label.

Neighbouring Rights Revenue

This is another type of royalty associated with the recording, NOT the composition. It’s called “neighbouring” rights because it neighbours the world of publishing (songwriter rights), but is tied instead to the usage of the track.

In many countries around the world, radio airplay generates revenue for the recording rights holder and artist. However, this is NOT the case in the USA, where only publishers earn money from terrestrial radio play.

But in the USA, as the owner of your sound recordings, or as the primary artist who performed on them, you CAN collect an additional kind of revenue similar to neighbouring rights when your tracks are played via digital radio, satellite radio, and other forms of non-interactive music streaming.

To collect neighbouring rights revenue, check out organizations such as:

Sync Licensing Revenue

Explore licensing options for your compositions and sound recordings.

When your music is placed in movies, TV shows, commercials, video games, and online platforms like YouTube, you stand to earn both publishing royalties AND a fee for licensing the track.

Cover Versions

If another artist wants to record one of your songs that you’ve already released, you CAN’T say no. It’s just one of those odd little caveats to copyright. But you ARE owed money… which we actually already mentioned above: Mechanical Royalties!

Samples

Unlike cover songs, you do have ALL the power when it comes to someone else being able to sample one of your recordings.

And you can say yes, no, or anything in between. You set the terms, and you should be compensated for both the track and the underlying composition being used. 

Derivative Works

You also have the ability to permit or deny someone the right to incorporate your music into one of their new compositions. Similar to samples, you set the terms. 

Conclusion

Copyright ownership is yours the moment you fix your original music in some form of permanent media. But now you also know there may be additional benefits to formal copyright registration, plus how to file that registration. You also know the various forms of music revenue you should be earning for the usage of your copyrighted material. 

Armed with all of that, you should be better empowered to protect your work, manage your catalog, and profit from your music!

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