Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
As an indie musician, putting your songs out into the world takes a lot of time, effort, commitment, and vulnerability. While it’s perhaps something we don’t typically give a second thought to, having ownership of your music is vital to ensuring that you maintain control of your work and earn all your royalties.
Let’s check out all the details on what it means to copyright your music, the cost, and why you should consider taking the extra few steps to protect your work.
What is copyright?
Copyright is your legal right as an owner of intellectual property. It ensures that your work — whether it’s your music, your writing, a piece of art, etc. — is protected. To put it more simply, copyright literally means the right to copy. Since you own the work, you (and whoever else you designate) have the right to replicate and reproduce the work.
For musicians, copyright law protects your song from being redistributed by another artist and ensures you can claim royalties if someone else rerecords it. It keeps your work under your name and gives you the right to take legal action if someone should attempt to reproduce your work.
What is the difference between copyright and copyright registration?
While copyright and copyright registration might seem one and the same, there are very distinct differences between the two.
Copyright is a form of intellectual property law and protects both published and unpublished works. This includes any original works, such as movies, novels, poetry, and, of course, songs.
The nice thing about intellectual property law is that any creative work automatically becomes intellectual property and is under copyright protection as soon as it is put in a fixed format. For example, when you write out your song lyrics on a piece of paper or type them on your computer, they then fall under copyright protection and your ownership.
According to copyright.gov, “Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” However, this doesn’t mean that your copyright is registered.
Registration is a separate action when it comes to protecting your work. While you don’t necessarily need to register your work, it can be helpful in some cases. Copyright registration creates a public record of your work. It lets the world know that this work is yours, and should anyone want to use it (your song, in this case), they will have to obtain your permission. If someone wants to use part of your song in their composition, they’ll have to get your permission so as not to infringe on your song copyright.
Some benefits of registering a copyright include:
- Having a public record of ownership over your work
- Having leverage to file a lawsuit if someone tries to reproduce your work
- Becoming eligible to acquire statutory damages (if your work is registered within three months of publication)
How to register a copyright for your song
There are nine steps to ensuring that your music is legally protected under copyright laws. First, let’s look at how to copyright your song via the Copyright Office.
- Go to copyright.gov.
- Click the link that says “Register Your Works.”
- Create an account or log in if you already have one.
- Make sure that your work meets the requirements for registration.
- Select the Standard Application or another registration option.
- On the next page, select the type of work you are registering — in this case, Works of the Performing Arts.
- The next page will allow you to upload the title of your song.
- Continue to click through each screen, entering ownership and other important information for your registration.
- Enter your payment and click submit.
Disc Makers also provides copyright services via our partnership with Cosynd. Cosynd helps to ensure that your application is error-free and can help manage your agreements and split sheets. So, instead of you taking those nine steps above, you’ll simply have to submit to Cosynd the following information:
- The legal names and country of citizenship of you and your co-authors
- The legal names and addresses of you and the owners of your song
- The year the song was completed and, if applicable, the date of its release
- The audio files for your sound recording registration and lyric/chord sheets for your composition registration
Registering your copyright via Cosynd is a simple way to make sure you won’t miss a beat and end up having to re-file — ultimately costing you more money.
Why should you copyright your song?
Copyright in music can protect your work across the board — from your lyrics, to production, to master recording. Which brings us to the two types of music copyright: composition and master recording.
Composers, lyricists, and songwriters of a track or an album are protected under compositional copyright. This is because as soon as the song was written, it became the writers’ intellectual property.
Master recording (or sound recording) copyright
However, the master recording copyright belongs to the performing or recording artists and their label. Sometimes the performing/recording artists are the same as the composers/lyricists/songwriters, as we see in many indie artists and bands today. But for big-time, label-signed artists, they may not be writing their own songs — but the master recordings of those songs still become their (and their label’s) intellectual property.
The infamous case of composition/master copyright
One interesting case of how copyright worked for both parties is Taylor Swift’s move to re-record all her albums (“Taylor’s Version”) after her previous record label sold her back catalog to a previous manager, of which she did not approve. The label could do so, though, because they were the copyright holder of her master recordings.
But because Swift was the writer of all her music, she was protected under copyright and able to reproduce her music. So, while she still doesn’t own the masters of the original recorded albums, she does now own the masters of the “Taylor’s Version” re-recorded albums.
How much does it cost to copyright a song?
While we’re all indie musicians and not looking to spend money when we don’t need to, securing copyright ownership and music licenses is essential. The cost of not copyrighting your music could ultimately be much higher.
On average, it costs between $45-$125 to register your work with the Copyright Office. The range mostly depends on how you choose to file — electronic or paper.
How long does it take to copyright your song?
The length of the registration process can range anywhere from 1–16 months, depending on how you’re submitting. Web claims can take between 1–6 months, with an average of three months; mail claims can take between 1–16 months, with an average of six months.
One of the best structures to put in place as an independent musician is to make sure all your legal bases are covered. Make registering your songs a part of your distribution process, and it will become just one more step to ensuring that you’re earning all your royalties and rights as an artist.
Lauren Davish is a writer, singer/songwriter, yoga instructor, and voice coach. She received her MA in Creative Writing with a focus on creative nonfiction in 2019. Her favorite types of writing include blog posts and song lyrics.
Seven facts about music copyrights
Your copyright and royalty questions answered
How to get signed to a record label
8 ways to make money playing music
What do music attorneys, managers, and agents do?