Updated: Nov 10, 2022
It pays to be safe. Actually, when it comes to making music, your career might depend on it.
Copyrighting your music may sound like a hassle at first. And of course, if you're just about to hum a melody that comes to your mind, you don't have to take this step quite yet. Once it progresses further, though, it becomes a serious consideration.
The best part is that this process is not nearly as cumbersome as it might seem. Considering the significant advantage you gain from it (or the harm you're avoiding in the process), it's well worth the effort.
Let's dive into the 7 steps you need to take to copyright your music, right after a further explainer on why this is a necessary process for any artist.
Why Should You Copyright Your Music?
Simply put: there are too many examples of plagiarized songs out there. Some of them are world-famous. Many are not. Just this year, megastar Ed Sheeran got sued for allegedly copying parts of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On" hit.
Sheeran is a millionaire, and Gaye's estate had a copyright. Not all artists are so lucky. If you publish your music without a copyright, you are putting it out there for anyone to copy. Only copyright can give you legal protection.
7 Steps to Copyright Your Music
Let's get more detailed. Applying for a copyright for one or more songs is actually not that complex. It certainly beats alternatives like the so-called poor man's copyright, which doesn't actually offer any legal protection. Break down the full process into its individual steps, and it's pretty straightforward.
1. Record Your Song
To even start the process, the song needs to exist in some shape outside your head. Most often, that means recording at least in a digital file. It can also mean lyrics and musical sheets. The most important part here is that the recording is tangible, meaning you can submit it for the record in some form.
2. Gather Your Information
Once the song is recorded, gather up all the information on it you have. In its simplest form, that's the digital recording file, lyrics, and information about the artist. If it's more than just you, it can get a bit more complex. For any collaboration, prepare to submit a split sheet that outlines the rights and responsibilities of each musician involved.
3. Create an Account on Copyright.gov
Copyright.gov is the official portal to submit all copyrights within the United States. It's where you can go through the entire process, as the digital presence for the U.S. Copyright Office. To do anything, though, even if you want to submit the copyright in the mail, you need to create an account first. Click on the large Register a Copyright picture/graphic on the top right to get started. Then, click on the Performing Arts section to get to the right place.
4. Complete the Copyright Registration, Online or via Mail
Your next step is the most important: the actual copyright registration. You can find it in the Performing Arts section, or under this direct link. If this is your first time going through the process, you'll have to create an account first.
The next most important question is what exact application you need to fill out. The two most artists struggle to distinguish are Form SR (which stands for Sound Recording) and PA (which stands for performing arts).
If you are only recording a song, always select Form PA. SR only comes into play if you register a specific recording as part of the copyright. If, for instance, you're publishing a book with a CD included, that work of art will need SR registration. If you're publishing a song, you'll want to protect the underlying work (meaning the lyrics and melody), which you can do through Form PA.
5. Pay Your Copyright Registration Fee
At the end of the registration, you'll be prompted to pay a processing fee without which the application cannot be completed. You can choose to send a check, but that typically increases costs. Your costs also change if you register multiple works or songs with multiple songwriters attached.
A basic digital fee for a single recording by a single artist starts at $35. For paper registration, that fee starts at $85.
6. Upload or Mail Your Song(s)
Only at this point, after you've paid the fee, should you actually submit the songs for review and approval. In the electronic application, you can do so via an easy upload box for MP3 and other digital files. Alternatively, you can mail in any documents or recordings of your song for review. Follow the instructions on how many times you'll need to submit the songs, and in what order, as that changes from situation to situation.
7. Wait For Copyright Approval
You've done all you can - now, it's time to wait. A web copyright claim takes between 2 and 10 months, and a paper claim takes between 1 and 26 months. Correspondence between you and the copyright office can delay the process. That doesn't mean your hands are tied; once approved, the official date of the copyright will be the moment that the U.S. Copyright Office received your application, fee, and song(s).
8. Avoid Shortcuts
Finally, do all you can do skip the below skips or even go with an alternative process. Stories of artists who use upload dates on YouTube or other public platforms as their claim to originality don't end well, and certainly don't hold up in court. This process is the only way you can make sure that your work is actually legally protected.
And of course, you have to make sure that your music is original. Anything less, and chances are you'll be denied copyright. Worse, you could end up in court yourself. Only original works of art should be submitted through this process.
Of course, your song might not be ready for copyrighting quite yet. It might just need some mixing and mastering to put the finishing touches on. That's where I come in. Contact me - let's talk about a collaboration to make your songs the best they can be.