How to Copyright a Song in 5 Simple Steps
Copyrighting your music puts you – as the artist – in absolute control of how your music is used and distributed by others. And more than that, you can actually earn money from copyright royalty pay-outs when your music is used by others.
So if you’re an artist releasing your own music, check out our step-by-step guide below for all the measures you can take to protect your music.
Do you need to copyright your music?
Contrary to belief, music copyright isn’t as complex as you might’ve been led to believe.
However (while the technicalities vary from country to country) the basic principle remains the same – copyrighting your song is a necessary step for protecting your music against plagiarism and theft.
You only have to look at some of the industry’s biggest copyright dispute cases to prove the fact – Robin Thicke & Pharell Williams v. Marvin Gaye; Vanilla Ice vs. Queen. As well as more recent battles between the likes of Lana Del Rey and Coldplay, to name a few.
So what lesson can we learn from all of these big names?
That no matter where you are in your music career - copyrighting your music gives you the exclusive rights to:
- Distribute your music in all formats, both physical and digital
- Create derivative works or samples based on your music; and
- Perform your music live
Yep - that means 0 risk of "blurred lines." (sorry)
Copyrighting music in the UK
In fact, in the simplest legal terms, copyright exists in the UK the minute you produce a physical form of your music – that’s anything from a scribbled down lyric on the back of a napkin, to a sound recording of the bridge on your old Nokia brick.
Copyrighting music in the USA
In the US, there’s a more official copyrighting process to be aware of.
This involves registering your songs and music with the US Copyright Office (USCO) and for US artists, this has definite benefits in terms of increasing your leverage, protection & power, when it comes to making money from your music catalog.
As a result of new legislation passed in 2019 by the US Supreme Court, all music and songs must now be registered with the USCO before you can file any kind of copyright dispute or infringement lawsuit.
Now here’s hoping you never have to. But – you never know. And if the case were to arise, failing to officially register your music would prevent you from taking anyone who stole or misused your music to court.
And that simply won’t do.
Early registration is highly recommended. If you register before your music is stolen or misused, you can get granted a large payout – anything up to $150,000 per infringement, plus legal fees.
So if you’re based in the US, copyrighting your music by a more official means will give you that added layer of protection, if, or when, you ever find yourself in the middle of a copyright dispute.
What types of music can be copyrighted?
When it comes to music, it can often be difficult to define what can and what cannot be copyrighted. So here’s what is eligible and what isn’t.
It's also possible to trademark your artist name under the right circumstances. But that's a whole other story.
Now we know all the ins and outs of what copyright is, how it differs between lands and what’s up for grabs, here are the 5 steps you need to start copyrighting your music today!
How to copyright your music in 5 steps
1. Make a physical copy
First thing’s first, write down or make a recording of your music.
Sounds obvious, we know.
But the truth is, putting pen to paper or sound to recording is the first official step for claiming your music copyright – whether that’s for a song, a symphony or a jingle.
This can be something as minimal as writing down your song lyrics on a piece of paper, making a note of the melody on some manuscript, or using a digital device to make a vocal or instrumental recording.
Whatever method you choose is up to you – so long as it’s possible to reproduce the song that you’ve ‘fixed’ into existence through some sort of tangible format.
Well, as we mentioned before, in some legal and technical cases, as soon as you’ve physically written it down, your song is already copyrighted.
Which seems easy, right?
Mmm, perhaps a bit too easy if you ask me.
While it’s true that some copyright protection exists from this point on (so arguably you could stop here if you wanted to) there’s a few extra steps you can take to make the ownership of your music that bit more concrete.
2. Create timely evidence for your case
Copyright is a time-related issue.
Although you can argue that copyright exists as soon as a song or piece of music has been written down, the more difficult task is actually proving when the tangible copy was made.
This is especially important in the case of any potential disputes about the ‘originality’ or ‘authorship’ of your work. If a case went to court, you’d be required to produce evidence that your music existed before anyone else copied it – what’s known as a ‘time stamped copy’.
There’s a few different ways you can go about getting this proof…
One way is to simply upload a digital recording of your music or sheet music to an online platform like YouTube, SoundCloud or Facebook, or send the files to yourself in an email. The online platforms will show the date and time of the upload, and similarly your email will be dated with when the attached audio was sent.
Another way is to deposit a written or recorded copy of the song to a responsible person – such as an attorney or music lawyer - and obtain a dated receipt for the deposit.
But probably the most historically well-known method – what’s known as ‘poor man’s copyright’ (ouch) – is posting yourself a copy of the recording/manuscript by special delivery and storing it, sealed, in a secure place until a time when it’s needed for proof.
While this method may sound outdated (and arguably it is), in the UK this is still the recommended method by which to secure copyright, as outlined by the PRS for Music.
This might float for any of you Brits, but in the US, poor man’s copyright no longer makes the cut.
Instead, you’ll have to register the copyright for your song through a more formalised registration process.
3. File the right forms (USCO)
Now you’ve got a time-stamped copy of your tune, it’s time to dive a bit deeper into the complex landscape of copyright.
Every piece of recorded music has two sides:
- The publishing copyright (written composition)
- The master copyright (sound recording)
The industry treats these two parts of copyright separately, even in cases where the writer and performer are the same person. But the separate treatment helps avoid any potential legal issues.
When registering your song with the USCO, there are TWO forms you need to know about: Form PA & Form SR.
If you want to claim the copyright for the composition or underlying musical work; fill out Form PA (Performing Arts).
If you want to claim the copyright for a sound recording or recorded performance; fill out Form SR (Sound Recording).
If you’re the single owner of both the composition AND sound recording, you only need to fill out ONE form – SR. You can use the authorship statement in Space 2 (as shown below) to specify that the claim covers both works.
You can either print the forms out and mail them to the US Copyright Office directly. Or, fill out and submit an electronic application.
And what about the $?
There’s a small filing fee for registering your songs via USCO. You can find out more information on the associated costs from the fees section of their website.
But here’s the good news.
If you’re copyrighting your own music, you can submit more than one song under one application for only one application fee!
This is ideal if you’re copyrighting an entire album or EP and it’ll save you a tonne of money and paperwork rather than registering each song separately.
And yes while it might suck a little to dish out money for proving ownership to what’s already rightfully yours, this small fee is worth it a hundred times over if you were ever to go to federal court over your music.
4. Divvy up the splits
How the money is divided up between the publishing and masters is very much down to how the actual song is being used.
While you – the recording artist - will reap in the rewards from mechanical royalties, if it’s a physical sale, such as a CD or vinyl, then the industry standard split is 91% to the master and around 9% to the publishing.
For music sync, it’s usually a 50/50 split between publishing and masters, making music sync another great avenue for new artists to explore.
Don’t forget - if you’re a solo artist, you’ll own all of the copyright. But if you’re in a band or there are multiple songwriters or co-writers, then you’ll need to include this in the paperwork, to make sure different portions of the copyright are fairly distributed.
5. Start earning money from copyright royalties
So we’ve established copyright is great – it gives you full ownership rights to your music and prevents any mean people from stealing or copying your work. Plus it requires you giving YOUR permission for others to record, distribute, sample or perform your song.
But copyrighting your music also opens you up to another potential revenue stream - via copyright royalty pay-outs - every time someone wants to perform or use your work.
What’s that? Another revenue stream for artists?! Music to our ears.
Just make sure you’re signed up with the right music collection society so you’re getting owed all the copyright royalties you’re due.
Or get started with Ditto Music Publishing and let us do the job for you!
And just like that - copyright cleared.