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 www.copyright.gov. 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
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.