Your Rights and ProtectionsIf you reached this page by search engine
You are granted certain legal protections when your song or music is copyrighted. This is an intellectual property right that the government gives you (and most countries have treaties that also honor the copyright laws of each other), which grant you the exclusive right to the original songs and music you create. And this song protection is granted for a definite period of time – which is usually from 50 to 70 years AFTER the original creator has died.
It can be lyrics, an instrumental musical piece, a full song, a beat or a poem -- the originating composer of the material is granted these exclusive rights to make copies of material, distribute it and/or make new songs or music from it (such as a remix of the original song or adding to it). In addition, song copyright protection includes the exclusive right to perform the music or song in public and, with certain exceptions, other people would need permission to perform it in public. An example of when this can be done WITHOUT permission is if a reviewer plays a part of your copyrighted material while reviewing it. This is called the “fair use” doctrine.
But keep in mind that just as YOUR music is protected, so are the songs of others! For example, while others cannot usually play your original songs, you as well cannot use someone else’s original music as part of your material – often called a “sample” – without the permission of the original creator! To do this, you’d generally need to get a music “license” to incorporate someone else’s copyrighted song, even if it’s just a tiny section of the whole piece. The laws regarding “samples” of songs and music are complex, however, and a license is sometimes not necessary. So always talk to a copyright lawyer before using any “samples” from others in your songs or music.
How Do I Copyright Songs?
There’s a lot of confusion and misinformation over how you get protection for your original songs and music. Also, many people aren’t sure whether they need to.
Regarding whether it’s really necessary to get your music and songs “copyrighted,” this really isn’t much of a concern once you understand what copyright is! YOUR SONGS ARE AUTOMATICALLY PROTECTED UNDER COPYRIGHT LAW AS SOON AS YOU FIRST PUT THEM INTO TANGIBLE (physical) FORM!
This means that once you write your music or lyrics on paper, or make a CD or an audio or video file of you or someone performing it, IT’S LEGALLY COPYRIGHTED. You don’t have to do anything else! You don’t have to register it with the government, or another party, or send it to yourself! The original composer of material is the owner of that material and has all the rights we described above! (The main exception to owning what you created is if you have been specifically HIRED by someone else to write songs and music for that person or company (“under hire”).
Most of the confusion about song and music copyright, however, has more to do with PROVING you really wrote the original material and when. In other words, if two people are disputing who owns the copyright to certain material, it usually becomes a question of who wrote the material first. (There can also be a difference as to how much money you can collect in a copyright lawsuit, depending on when your material is federally registered – see below.)
Which bring us to the “poor man’s copyright.” Many of you have heard about this technique for supposedly protecting your songs and music. It consists of mailing a copy of your music to yourself without opening the envelope. The reasoning behind it is to use the letter’s postmark as evidence of when you created the song or music. But we don’t recommend this method because it has never had any legal merit. The main reasons are: (1) no protection is added since you already have an automatic copyright when your music material is first put into physical form and (2) it’s simple to alter a mailed envelope (especially when the post office doesn’t even check to see if it’s sealed). So anyone could put anything into an envelope after mailing it to themselves! The bottom line is that the poor man’s copyright offers no protection at all.
Now if you mainly want to just have a quick way of presenting credible evidence of when you first wrote or put your song or music into physical form, then at least get it registered with an independent, credible third party registration service. This is inexpensive and quick and offers far better evidence of when you wrote, or at least submitted, your song or music or lyrics than the “poor man’s copyright” method does.
At some point however, the best course of action, whether you do it immediately or at least shortly after composing and/or registering your music, is to register your songs with the Copyright Office. There are several reasons for doing this: (1) Registering with the Copyright Office (Library of Congress) gives you certain “statutory” rights to more money if you win your copyright infringement lawsuit – such as lawyer fees and a certain monetary amount without your having to prove actual “damages.” (2) You must file with the Copyright Office right before actually filing your lawsuit in federal court.
Hopefully this discussion helps you get through the confusing world of music copyright law. But always keep in mind that even though you may have exclusive song rights, this doesn’t mean you can just sit back and wait for your automatic royalties. Remember that unless you’re already a big time name, no one is looking out for you to see if someone is stealing your stuff! No one “polices” all the music all over the world to see what’s been stolen. YOU generally have to do that (or your attorney or, if you have a certain level of success, a royalties company). And lastly, ALWAYS check with a good copyright attorney for details about copyright law and your music!
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