Join Garrick Chow for an in-depth discussion in this video Copyrighting your original songs, part of The Business of Songwriting: First Steps.
Who owns a song? Well, the copyright holder, that's who, but what is a copyright? A copyright officially identifies who actually owns a song. The owner of the song has the right to reproduce or make copies of a song. The right to copy, copyright, the name makes sense. A copyright also gives the copyright owner the right to give others permission to reproduce or make copies of the song. When you copyright a song, that means the song is given protection under U.S., and in many cases, international law, against infringement or illegal copying. Whether someone can reproduce it, perform it or create variations of the song is a matter of them acquiring the proper licensing through you, your publisher or another representative organization like ASCAP or the Harry Fox agency, which we'll be looking at later.
The good news is that in most countries, including the U.S., songs are automatically considered copyrighted as long as they're original and in a fixed state. Meaning the song can't infringe on other songs by being identical or substantially similar to other songs. And it has to be in a tangible form like being written down on paper or recorded to tape or a computer hard drive. So as long as you've written an original song and it's recorded in some way, it's automatically copyrighted. Also, bear in mind that if you've recorded a song, you'll have both the intellectual copyright, as well as the copyright to that particular recording.
These are two separate copyrights. Each time a song is recorded, it has its own copyright, the copyright for that version of the song. But the idea of the song, the intellectual copyright, which, in the case of music, is often referred to as the composition or the work, is a separate copyright. So for example, if someone records their own version of the song you wrote, they would own the copyright to that recording, but you still own the copyright of the song or composition itself. Now, just because a song is technically copyrighted as soon as you record it in some way, this doesn't mean you shouldn't go through the process of actually registering your copyright to protect your song, especially if the song is important to you.
For one thing, in order to have the right to sue someone for copyright infringement, a registration is required. In the U.S., you need to register through the U.S. Copyright Office. You can file through the mail, but in most cases, as with everything else, doing it online is going to be faster and easier. First, make sure you have a copy of your song on your computer. If it's a recording of the song, it can be in a standard audio file format like an AIF, WAVE or MP3. If the song is written down, you can submit it as a PDF, a Microsoft Word document, or if you take a photo or scan the written down song, it can be in a common image file format like a PNG, JPEG or GIF.
For a full list of acceptable file types, visit this link. Once you have your file, point your web browser at copyright.gov. Note that it currently costs $35 for a single author filing in cases where there's only a single person claiming ownership of the song and that it's $55 for other online filings. If you're only registering one or two songs, this is probably fine, but registering more than that can start to get pricey. One way around this, however, is to copyright an entire album. That way, you still only have to pay a single registration fee and you only have to fill out one registration form, and the songs contained on that album are still protected under copyright.
Of course, it all depends on your current situation, whether you have an entire album of songs and if you're okay waiting until you have a chunk of songs to copyright all at once. If this is your first time registering a song, you'll have to create an account before continuing. Here in the login area, click new user and fill out your information. Once you've completed the procedure of creating an account, you'll end up on the main Electronic Copyright Office page. Here under Copyright Registration click Register a New Claim. And from here, you'll need to respond to a series of questions about the work you're registering. Just follow the instructions as you are prompted through the process.
Near the end, you'll be asked to upload your file. Once that's done, it's just a matter of waiting for your copyright application to be processed. Typically, it takes 3 to 6 months for an application to be reviewed. You can log back into your account at anytime and click on Working Cases to check its status. Now, copyrighting is just one step, albeit a vital one, in protecting your work. There're several other steps you'll want to take to make sure your songs are protected and so that you'll receive any royalties you're due should your song gain some success. We'll continue looking at these steps throughout this course.
The second half of the course is geared toward the DIY musician. Garrick discusses ways to self-distribute and promote your music with TuneCore, CDBaby, Topspin, Bandcamp, and ReverbNation. Plus, learn the importance of websites, social promotion, and music placement, as well as making music videos, signing with a record label, and building a solid team.