how to copyright a song

How to copyright a song for free


As an independent artist, protecting your music is essential. This comprehensive guide will walk you through the process of copyrighting your song, ensuring your rights are protected and you can make money as a musician. Whether you’re releasing music on platforms like Spotify or aiming to get your music on Spotify playlists, copyrighting your song is crucial.

Understand Copyright Basics

Before diving into the process, it’s important to understand what copyright is and how it applies to your music. In simple terms, copyright is a form of intellectual property protection that grants the creator of an original work exclusive rights to their creation. For musicians, copyright applies to both the musical composition (melody, harmony, lyrics) and the sound recording.

By owning the copyright to your song, you can control its usage, distribution, and ownership of your masters. It also allows you to take legal action against anyone who infringes on your rights.

Copyright law can be complex, and it’s essential to be familiar with the basics before attempting to navigate the process on your own. For a more in-depth look at copyright law, consult resources like the U.S. Copyright Office’s website or seek legal advice from a copyright attorney.

Make Sure Your Song Is Original

To be eligible for copyright protection, your song must be an original work of authorship. This means that you cannot copyright a cover, remix, or any work that heavily borrows from another artist’s song. Ensure your work is truly original to avoid potential mistakes artists must avoid.

Creating original music is the cornerstone of a successful career as an independent artist. Focus on developing your unique sound and style, and use songwriting tips to help you craft memorable and engaging songs.

Create a Tangible Recording

Copyright protection begins as soon as your song is “fixed” in a tangible form, such as a digital recording or written sheet music. This is essential to prove your ownership in case of a dispute. When recording your song, make sure it’s of high quality by understanding the difference between mixing and mastering.

Producing a high-quality recording of your music not only helps with copyright protection but also contributes to your overall success as an artist. A well-produced song is more likely to be noticed by Spotify playlist curators and receive positive feedback from listeners.

Additionally, it’s important to consider the different formats your music can be released in, such as singles, EPs, or full-length albums. Each format has its advantages and disadvantages, and selecting the right format for your music can help you reach a wider audience and maximize your revenue.

Register Your Copyright

In the United States, you can register your song’s copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office by submitting an application and the required fees. While not mandatory, registration provides significant legal advantages, such as the ability to sue for copyright infringement and collect statutory damages.

To register your copyright, visit the U.S. Copyright Office’s website and follow the instructions for submitting your application. The process typically involves filling out an online form, uploading a copy of your work, and paying a fee. The registration process can take several months, so it’s essential to be patient and stay organized.

For musicians outside the United States, consult your country’s copyright office or intellectual property agency for specific instructions. Each country has its own copyright laws and registration procedures, so it’s important to research and understand the requirements in your jurisdiction.

How to copyright a song for free

Protect Your Music Online: Timestamp and Prove Your Ownership

Although copyright protection technically begins as soon as your music is recorded or written down, the challenge lies in proving your ownership and verifying the date your music came into existence. This evidence is crucial if someone tries to copy your music later and claim it as their own.

When your music is embodied in a physical format, it has copyright protection; however, should a dispute arise, you will need evidence to prove that your music existed before anyone copied it. The essential evidence is a ‘timestamped copy’ of the musical works you’ve created, which can be easily obtained for free today.

How To Timestamp Your Music For Free

To timestamp your music, upload your digital sound recordings or sheet music to an online platform like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, or Soundcloud, or send the files to yourself in an email. This simple step is sufficient to prove that your songs existed at the time you uploaded or emailed them.

Your upload to any of these online services will display the date it was uploaded, and similarly, your email server will show when the attached audio was sent. By having a timestamped copy of your music, you’ll have the necessary evidence to protect your copyright in case of disputes or infringement.

“Poor man’s copyright” explained

“Poor man’s copyright” is a term that refers to an informal method of attempting to establish copyright ownership. This method involves sending a copy of your work (such as a song, manuscript, or piece of art) to yourself via postal mail, leaving the envelope sealed. The idea is that the postmark on the envelope will serve as proof of the date the work was created, and by extension, your ownership of the copyright.

However, the poor man’s copyright is not legally recognized in the United States and does not offer any substantial protection in a court of law. The U.S. Copyright Office explicitly states that this method is not a substitute for registering your copyright with the proper government agency.

In the United States, the most effective way to protect your work and enforce your copyright is by registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration provides significant legal advantages, such as the ability to sue for copyright infringement and collect statutory damages. Therefore, it’s crucial for artists and creators to properly register their works rather than relying on the poor man’s copyright, which lacks legal recognition and protection.

Exploring the Dual Aspects of Music Copyright: Master Recordings and Composition Publishing

When it comes to music copyright, it’s essential to understand that there are two distinct sides involved: the Master (Sound Recording) and the Publishing (Composition). Each side represents different aspects of a song and holds its own copyright, which is important for musicians and artists to be aware of when navigating the music industry.

Master (Sound Recording)

The Master, or sound recording copyright, protects the specific recording of a song. This copyright is usually owned by the artist or their record label and covers the rights to the specific audio recording of the music, including the artist’s performance, any featured musicians, and the production elements.

When a song is streamed, downloaded, or sold as a physical copy, the owner of the sound recording copyright is entitled to royalties. If you own your masters, as discussed in what does it mean to own your masters in music, you will have more control over your music’s distribution and earnings.

Publishing (Composition)

The Publishing, or composition copyright, protects the underlying composition of the song, which includes elements like the melody, lyrics, and chord progressions. This copyright is usually owned by the songwriter or their publisher and covers the rights to the musical composition itself, separate from any specific recordings of the song.

Royalties generated from the publishing copyright are collected when a song is publicly performed (e.g., played on the radio, in a club, or during a live concert), reproduced in physical or digital formats, or used in synchronization with visual media like movies, TV shows, or commercials.

Songwriters and composers should be aware of their rights regarding the publishing copyright and ensure they are registered with a performing rights organization (PRO) to collect the royalties they are entitled to.

How to copyright a song for free

Dealing with splits

  • Dealing with splits, or the division of royalties and ownership among collaborators can be a sensitive and crucial aspect of working in the music industry. Here are some tips on how to approach splits effectively and fairly:
  • Have open discussions: It’s important to have open and honest conversations about splits with your collaborators from the outset. Discussing the division of royalties and ownership before the creative process begins can help avoid misunderstandings and disagreements later on.
  • Define roles and contributions: Clearly outline each collaborator’s role and contribution to the project. For instance, identify who the primary songwriter, composer, producer, or featured artist is, and consider their creative input when determining splits.
  • Consider industry standards: While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to determining splits, it’s helpful to be aware of industry standards. Songwriters typically split publishing royalties evenly, while producers and featured artists might negotiate a percentage of the master recording royalties.
  • Put it in writing: To ensure that all parties are on the same page and to avoid future disputes, create a written agreement detailing the splits. This can be a simple split sheet, a more formal contract, or even an email exchange that outlines the agreed-upon terms.
  • Register with PROs and royalty collection agencies: Make sure all collaborators are registered with performing rights organizations (PROs) and royalty collection agencies to ensure accurate royalty distribution. Provide the necessary details, including the agreed-upon splits, so that each party receives their fair share of the earnings.
  • Be flexible and open to negotiation: Remember that splits may need to be revisited as a project evolves or additional collaborators join. Be open to renegotiating the terms if necessary and maintain a flexible attitude to keep relationships positive and productive.
  • Seek legal advice when needed: If you’re unsure about how to handle splits or if disputes arise, consider seeking legal advice from an entertainment attorney. They can provide guidance on industry standards, help draft agreements, and assist in resolving conflicts.

Navigating the Intricacies of Music Copyright: Prominent Case Studies

Here are three interesting case studies that highlight some of the challenges and complexities in the realm of music copyright:

  1. Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and T.I. vs. Marvin Gaye’s Estate: In one of the most high-profile music copyright cases in recent years, the family of Marvin Gaye sued Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and T.I. for copyright infringement, claiming that their 2013 hit “Blurred Lines” copied elements from Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up.” In 2015, the court ruled in favor of Gaye’s estate, and Thicke and Williams were ordered to pay over $7 million in damages. The ruling sparked a debate about the fine line between inspiration and infringement in the music industry.
  2. Sam Smith vs. Tom Petty: In 2014, similarities between Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” and Tom Petty’s 1989 song “I Won’t Back Down” led to an out-of-court settlement. Although the parties involved acknowledged that the similarities were unintentional, Smith agreed to give Petty and his co-writer, Jeff Lynne, a 12.5% writing credit on “Stay With Me.” This case demonstrates how unintentional similarities can still lead to copyright disputes and highlights the importance of being aware of potential influences when creating music.
  3. Led Zeppelin vs. Spirit: In a case that spanned many years, the estate of Randy Wolfe, a guitarist for the band Spirit, sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement, claiming that their iconic song “Stairway to Heaven” borrowed elements from Spirit’s instrumental track “Taurus.” The case went to trial in 2016, and the jury ruled in favor of Led Zeppelin, stating that the two songs were not substantially similar. However, the case went through appeals and was eventually heard by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the original verdict in favor of Led Zeppelin in 2020. This case underscores the complexity and subjectivity involved in determining substantial similarity in music copyright disputes.

These case studies demonstrate the challenges in navigating music copyright issues and the importance of understanding copyright law for artists, songwriters, and producers.

In Conclusion

Copyrighting your song is a crucial step for every independent artist. It ensures your rights are protected, allowing you to make money as a musician and focus on building your career. By understanding copyright basics, ensuring your song is original, creating a tangible recording, registering your copyright, protecting your music online, and educating yourself about your copyright, you’ll be well on your way to a successful and secure music career.

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