How to Copyright a Song
Whether you are an avid songwriter or an aspiring beat maker, it’s important to know how to protect your creative works from being copied and misused. Even if you’re not planning on using your music for public or commercial purposes, there’s always a chance that someone could take what you’ve created and claim it for his own. In order to protect your original works from this type of situation, you will want to be familiar with how to copyright a song and be able to complete every part of the process for all of your musical creations.
The Rights Granted by a Copyright
A copyright is an intellectual property right granted to you by the U.S. government. It gives you exclusive right to the original works you have created, though not for an infinite period of time. Regardless of the type of work you’ve created – a song, a painting, a book or a photograph – you are entitled to copyright protections by law. When you create something original, you are the owner of that work and you are implicitly granted rights to it by definition of having been the original creator and owner of the song, beat, poem or whatever it is that you have created. The copyright grants you several rights, including the right to make copies of your work, to distribute copies of it and to create new works that are derived from your original work. An example of such a derivative work could be a remix of your own song or a digitally edited version of a photograph you took.
In regards to copyrighting a song, you automatically receive exclusive rights to perform your song in public. So if you’re a singer, a musician, a music producer or an improvisational actor, your song cannot be performed by others without your express or implied permission. There are, of course, exceptions and limitations to these rules. For example, if someone is doing a criticism of your work, reporting it on the news, teaching about it, doing research on it or doing something else scholarly with it, they are permitted to use your copyrighted works under something known in the U.S. as “fair use” doctrine. For you, as a creator of music, this doctrine has several implications. If you are using samples from other people’s musical works and incorporating them into your song, you need to be very careful. In most cases, it is necessary for you to obtain a license for each sample that you’re using in your song in order to use the sample legally. You may be able to use it without obtaining a license, but only if you edit the sample to such an extent that it is not recognizable as a sample from the original song. The issue of sampling has come up in major court cases over the past few decades, with decisions that conflict over time, so this is something that you should talk to a lawyer about if you’re planning on sampling other songs in your own works. The same applies when other musicians or producers want to use samples from your songs. Due to the copyright protections that you hold, which grant you exclusive rights to your original works, other performers are not able to legally use samples of your songs in their own.
Copyrighting a Song
When you have created a song, it is automatically protected by copyright law. As long as the song exists on paper, on your hard drive, on an audio cassette, a USB flash drive or some other tangible medium, it is considered to have been created. Although you are granted copyright to your song as soon as it exists, you will want to take further measures to ensure that you don’t run into troubles later on. For example, if someone copies your song, how will you prove that you were the original creator and didn’t just copy it from the other person? To address this issue, a tactic knows as, “poor man’s copyright” has become popular over the years. This technique involves putting your song in an envelope and mailing it to yourself. The rationale is that the official stamp from the postal office gives you enough proof of the date at which your song existed. So, if anyone ever tries to claim that they are actually the original owner of the song, they would have to provide officially dated proof of having owned it earlier than the stamp on your self-mailed envelope indicates.
This “poor man’s copyright” method, however has no real merit as a method of securing copyright protection from the government. As stated earlier, you automatically receive copyright protection as soon as your song exists, so mailing it to yourself doesn’t add to that protection. What you do want to do, though, is register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Whether you are claiming copyright to just one song or an entire album or collection of songs that you have created, you can submit them to the Copyright Office using a single form. The current fee for registering your copyright with the Copyright Office is $65 per form (as of 11/2011). If you have your song in digital format, whether it’s sheet music, lyrics or an audio file, you can submit it digitally for only $35 (as of 11/2011). Submitting your copyright claim online is convenient due to the lower fee, quicker processing time and the ease of simply uploading a WAV or MP3 file. It couldn’t be simpler – just click on one of the links above to register your copyright.
Now that you know how to copyright a song, you can rest easy knowing that your exclusive rights to your created original works are protected from use by others. But remember, even if you’ve taken the time to register your copyright, seek the help of a lawyer if you ever encounter an issue with someone using your copyrighted works without your permission.