The CLIMB is a podcast produced by Brent Baxter and Johnny Dwinell dedicated to helping singers, songwriters, and artists create leverage in the music business. This post is excerpted from The CLIMB podcast, Episode #131, “Should I Copyright My Song?”
BB: This is a question that pops up from time to time in the Songwriting Pro Facebook community and in The CLIMB community every now and again. It’s a common question: “Should I copyright my song?”
It’s a relevant question. People sweat and freak out about it, so we’re going to dive into it.
Let me start off by saying I am not a lawyer, I am not a copyright attorney, so this is not legal advice. But I will give you my professional experience, and what I’ve seen, done, and experienced on Music Row.
Here’s the big thing you need to know about copyright. As per the Copyright Act of 1976, as soon as you sing your song into your voice memo on your phone, you write it down in your notebook, you sing it into a tape deck… as soon as it’s in a fixed form — you record it somehow, you write it down — you own the copyright. You own the copyright the minute you do that. So usually, when people ask about copyrighting songs, they’re asking about registering the copyright for protection.
Here in the US, you go to copyright.gov and get Form PA (Performing Arts), you fill that out and end in your song, and that registers your copyright. You already own the copyright, now you’re waving your hand to the government saying, “Hey! Got this copyright here. I want you to know about it.” So they acknowledge it and stamp a date on it, and that way if it comes up in a lawsuit — whether you’re on either side of a lawsuit — you’ve got it registered, there’s an official stamp, you turned it in this date, it counts in a court of law.
JD: So you can copyright per song, or you can put 20, 30, 40, 50, 100 songs on a CD (if you can fit them) and register it as a collection for the same price.
[Ed note: It’s $35 to register a single song or a collection of songs if there is one author/songwriter and he/she is the sole author of all the songs in the collection. It’s $55 to register songs/albums with multiple authors. To register a collection, all the song splits/authors must be same for all the songs in the collection.]
BB: So what do the pros do? I used to work in the royalty department of Bluewater Music. Bluewater’s legit, works with hit songwriters and does admin work for other publishing companies, and we wouldn’t send off a copyright registration until the day a song was released. This was around 2002. So it’d be like, there’s a new Rick Trevino album coming out, we’ve got two Al Anderson songs on there. We’ve got the form filled out, it’s sitting in my ‘ready-to-go’ box, release day comes… “It’s out? It’s really out?” OK, now we’re going to spend the money and we’re going to send that off. We have the date of creation back-dated to the day it was written, but now we’re sending off the registration because now it’s in the public domain.
At the time, I think it was $40 to register a co-authored work, and we had all these songwriters turning in songs, we weren’t going to copyright every song — I don’t think anybody does — we can’t afford to copyright 1,000 songs a year. That’s $40,000.
JD: This is a publishing company, by the way. They pay songwriters to write really good songs, and they’re generating revenue from those songs…
BB: But not from most of them. Most of them will never earn a penny. So why are we getting upside down on them? And all that paperwork. You’ve got to pay somebody to fill out all that paperwork. It’s not really, in my opinion, a great use of time and money.
There are a couple of things publishing companies do that you can also do. Prove date of creation. That’s what it all comes down to. If somebody says, “Hey, you ripped off my song,” and you can say, “Well, my date of creation is before yours,” their argument falls apart. So your digital stamps from GarageBand, or you upload it to YouTube, even if you make it private, the date stamps are all evidence of date of creation.
When “Monday Morning Church” got cut by Alan Jackson, I remember my co-writer’s publisher asking me, “Erin was telling me you write everything in these notebooks,” and yes, even if I write on a computer or something, I still like to write by hand in a notebook to say “this is what we worked on this day,” and I put a date and list the co-writers in there. He was like, that’s great, that’s evidence, and that jives with my paper calendars that list all my co-writes, so that’s all evidence proving date of creation.
So what if somebody steals my song? It’s hard to sue and prove plagiarism. Secondly, you have to prove that the “thief” had access to your song. This is why many hit songwriters don’t do contests or feedback nights, they don’t want to get exposed to songs if they can help it because that way, years later if they write a song that has the same title you pitched to them for a contest — even though you can’t copyright a title — and someone’s claiming “you were at that thing on such and such a date, and you heard my song…” they just don’t want to be exposed to that liability.
The CLIMB is a podcast produced by Brent Baxter (award-winning hit songwriter with cuts by Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Lady Antebellum, Joe Nichols, and more) and Johnny Dwinell (owner of Daredevil Production) that’s dedicated to helping singers, songwriters, and artists like you create leverage in the music business because that’s what you’re gonna need. You’re gonna need some leverage, you’re gonna need an audience, and you’re gonna need a reason for people to stand up and salute you. It’s not just about your talent – you’ve got to bring the business, and that’s why we call it The CLIMB, it’s an acronym that stands for “creating leverage in the music business.” Hear this entire podcast and more at on the Disc Makers website.
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