music copyright — seven facts

Seven facts about music copyrights

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Music copyrights are pretty straightforward and rather complex all at once. The simple explanation is copyrighting your work gives you protection and rights so other folks can’t use your creative work without your consent. But when you dig beneath the surface, there are nuances that can get confusing.

Here are seven basic tenets about music copyrights that you need to know.

1. A music copyright is born upon creation, not registration

When you take an original idea from your head and put it into a tangible form, such as lyrics in a notebook or a melody in your iPhone voice recorder, a copyright is born and it gives you a bundle of rights under the United States Copyright Act.

Now, upon publication of that work, it’s highly recommended to register your copyright with the United States Copyright Office in Washington DC, as this will give you three more very important rights. But make no mistake, a copyright is born upon creation.

2. Three important rights granted by copyright registration

The act of taking a recording of your song, putting it in an envelope, and mailing it to yourself through the United States Postal Office — aka a poor man’s copyright — establishes some details regarding the creation of the idea, including a date of creation, but it does not give you:

  1. The right of rebuttable presumption of ownership
  2. The right to sue in a court of law
  3. The right to receive actual or statutory damages

These rights come via registration in Washington DC, which is why it’s advisable to officially copyright your work.

3. Splits are equal across elements of a song

Consider this scenario: You’ve written lyrics by yourself and I’ve written music by myself. Then we get together to co-write and combine the two. Once we merge these two elements together, we now both have an equal ownership interest in both the words and the music and the two parts cannot be separated without us continuing to have some sort of ownership interest in whatever new work is created. So, when two or more people come together to write a song, the splits are equal in the entire song.

4. Negotiating splits

While a joint work is, by default, split equally among the contributors of a song, the splits can be negotiated differently in writing — but there is no one way to negotiate splits. Some people say that 50 percent of the song should be split among the contributors of the music and the other 50 percent of the song should be split among the contributors of the words. Others might argue — including other contributing band members — that the entire song should be split equally among the group, even non-writing members.

Again, there is no single answer or way to negotiate splits, but it’s advisable to keep a written split sheet of the negotiations locked away to define each contributor’s agreed-upon share.

5. Two music copyrights in one

There are actually two music copyrights in the recording of a song.

The first copyright is the song itself, which is usually created by the songwriters or the artist. The second copyright is the copyright of the sound recording, which is usually created by the person who captures the sound, such as the producer or the performers on the record. So there are two copyrights in the recording of the song, and you need to make sure to understand both of those rights to make sure that you get fully paid.

6. You need a license to use copyrighted material in your song

Any time you want to use any part of another artist’s song in your composition or recording, you must get a license from the original owner. That’s right — whether it’s four bars of music you want to re-record or as little as one note from someone else’s master recording you want to lift and bury in the mix, you must get a license from the publisher and/or master owner, respectively. Failure to clear these rights early on can end up being costly and can even lead to infringement charges. Any time you want to interpolate or sample any part of another artist’s song, you must get a license from the original owner.

Now, this is different than recording someone else’s song as a cover. You don’t need permission for that, but you do need to pay the songwriter a royalty for every copy made or stream streamed.

7. YouTube videos using music require a synchronization license

When merging a song with visual images, a sync license must be obtained from the author/owner of the song — and that includes a video of you performing a cover song. Many DIY artists ignore this law, usually out of ignorance, with one of two results:

  1. The publisher/owner of the song asks YouTube to take it down
  2. The publisher/owner permits the song to stay up and collects YouTube ad money

Make no mistake, cover songs on YouTube require a synchronization license from the publisher or via companies like

Bobby Borg is the author of Music Marketing For The DIY Musician (Second Edition), Business Basics For Musicians (Second Edition), and The Five Star Music Makeover (published by Hal Leonard Books). Get these books at any fine online store in physical or digital format. Learn more at

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One thought on “Seven facts about music copyrights

  1. Disc Makers Blog always has some fantastic and relevant articles, but the “Seven facts about music copyrights” was especially insightful and helpful. Took some of the confusion and mystery away from an area that many musicians don’t give much thought to… until it’s too late. Great article!

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