Sound Advice

A column devoted to answering some of your
legal questions for recording artists
written by

Peter Vaughan Shaver,
Entertainment Attorney & i'm Team member.

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#1 - Copyrights Basics for Musicians

First off, it is important for musicians to know that there are two types of copyrights related to music: rights in the song compositions (imagine the songs written out as sheet music, with or without lyrics) and rights in the sound recordings (in the familiar form of CDs or MP3 files). Do not confuse the two, as there are very different sources of music-related revenue specifically related to each type.

The good news is that by merely writing and recording your songs in some format you have protectable copyrights in them. Even without formally filing for copyright registration, by "fixing" your original material in a "tangible medium of expression", such as a CD or digital file, you have established protectable copyrights in your work. However, the bad news is that without registering your songs, your copyrights are very weak and limited and you can only recover what are called "actual" damages from infringers. Actual damages are either the amount the infringer gained through the sales or unauthorized use of your material, or the amount you lost by being deprived of the chance to market and sell your own material.

Registering your copyrights is an inexpensive and highly effective way to solidify your rights to your creative output. Some of the benefits of registration include proof that you created and owned the material as of a certain date, recovering your attorney's fees from infringers and, as an alternative to actual damages, you might be able to collect "statutory damages" of up to $150,000 for each willful infringement of your material.

Also, for certain publishing and licensing deals, it is a benefit to have previously established your ownership of both the sound recordings and compositions. You don't have to register every song you create, but for songs that have potential economic value or are being exposed to the public, you should definitely consider registering them. Also, if you are looking for a recording or publishing deal, you will likely be sending out your songs for other parties to review. Why not obtain the maximum protection of your stuff BEFORE sending it out. Don't wait until you get signed by a recording or publishing company to deal with your copyrights. If any company offers to register your songs for you, chances are it will be in their name and not your own.

Copyright registration is easy.

1. Download copyright application Forms (in .pdf format) and Instructions (in separate .pdf files) from the Copyright Office website at Song compositions are registered using a Form PA (Performing Arts). Otherwise, if you just own the master sound recordings, use a Form SR (Sound Recordings). In certain circumstances, using the SR Form will entitle you to register both compositions and sound recordings on the one Form. Check out Copyright Office Circulars #56 and 56a for more information. (Also available online at the Copyright Office website).

Also, you should consider separately registering your copyrights for album packaging artwork/ design and band logos. Your music-related copyright registrations will not cover these items and you should use copyright Form VA (Visual Arts) for these items.

2. Complete the application Forms using the Instructions and send them with a check for $45.00 and ("deposits") of your song compositions and/or recordings (one copy for unpublished music, two copies for released music). Generally, you can register entire collections of songs together for one $45.00 fee and can add the song titles to the registration by filing Continuation Forms. However, in certain cases, you might want to consider registering individual songs, especially where an individual song is very popular. To get maximum benefits you should always register within three months of publication of your music - the date from which you first offer the work for sale or perform it in public. Keep copies of everything you send to the Copyright Office.

3. In a few months, you will receive a stamped and numbered registration form from the Copyright Office.

Note: Don't bother with "poor man's copyright"- the practice of mailing yourself a sealed envelope containing your creative material. This is NOT the same as copyrighting and does not provide you with any of the important benefits listed above.

Even if you don't register your work, you should always place a copyright notice on any demo copies sent out for review, including putting your notice on the CD and the packaging. For compositions, album artwork and logos, the notice should look like this: " 2003, your name here. All rights reserved." If you own the sound recordings add "(P) 2003, your name here." The circle "P" stands for "Phonogram" - an old school way of saying "recording." You can see how other artists do this by checking out most major label CD packaging. Typically, the record company owns the sound recordings.

The bottom line: Understanding the two types of copyrights for musicians is crucial. Copyrighting your valuable work is important and easy to do. Don't wait until you get a publishing or recording deal to register your copyrights.


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