Updated: Nov 10, 2022
Digital piracy is rampant, and even less well-known indies are often hit by it. Discovering your music available on a download site without your permission, and without you getting a cut, can be enough to make you tear your hair out.
Legally, you own the copyright to a song as soon as it exists in a "tangible medium" - that includes both sheet music and your first recording. However, in March 2019, the Supreme Court formally codified a situation that had been around for a while. If you want to sue somebody for piracy or plagiarism, you have to register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. (Note: These instructions are for the United States. Your country may have different protocols).
There are some exceptions for music, which tends to be more vulnerable to predistribution infringement.
So, how do you go about copyrighting the song that just turned you into "the baffled king composing Hallelujah?"
Record and Write Down the Song
Your copyright exists when the song exists in a "tangible medium." Be aware that there are two levels to this. The first is the musical composition, which should be written down on sheet music. The second is the actual recording. In music, these are two different things. If you are a songwriter who does not perform, then you can register only the "structure" of the song as it was written down.
Register Your Copyright
Once you have your "tangible medium" then you need to register your copyright. There are two parts of the copyright to a song. There is the underlying song, and then there is a specific recording. You will need to register both. Unless you are registering both to the exact same claimant (authors), then you will have to register them separately and pay separate fees.
One thing to bear in mind: You should not register the copyright in the name of your band unless you have formally incorporated the band as an LLC (which is sometimes a good idea for liability). Instead, the copyright should be registered with each member of the band listed as a co-author. Bands break up and bands do not really exist as a legal entity unless incorporated.
Delegate The Task to Someone
If you are working with a band, you should also delegate a specific person to handle copyright registration so as to avoid confusion. That person will start by creating an account on the U.S. Copyright Office's website. Be aware that this person should also be the person who deals with rights questions, so if you have a manager or a personal assistant, they are probably the right person to have do this. You can also submit claims by mail, but this tends to take longer, often a lot longer.
Double Check Your Collaboration Agreement
Depending on your collaboration agreement (if you don't have one, make one), the claimant for the song may be different than for the recording. For example, if Betsy writes all of your songs, then she has the right to ask that the copyright in the song is registered to her.
The website has a detailed form on which you will provide the following:
Type of work - in this case, "Work of the Performing Arts" for the song or "Sound Recording" for the specific recording.
Date of publication or "unpublished". (You are not required to publish sheet music to claim copyright on the song itself).
Year of completion. This is when you finished composing the song. If it took you years, then you give the year when you finished it, not started it. Authors. For the music, this is the songwriter. For the recording, list all performers and the producer who created the recording. As mentioned, you should not put the copyright in the name of the band unless you incorporated it. If you are also registering artwork, including the artists.
Any limitations on the claim. For example, if you have pre-existing material included, then that needs to be marked.
Submit Required Deposit Copy
You will need to provide a copy of the work. If you are only required to provide digital copies, then do so, as this will greatly reduce processing time. What the Copyright Office requires varies:
For unpublished songs, upload a digital copy of the lyrics and sheet music.
Songs published in printed form in the United States, two physical copies of the sheet music, unless it is available only for rental (this is generally for orchestral compositions), in which case you only need to provide one.
Songs first published outside the United States, one copy of the original version or of the United States edition if there is one.
Recordings that are unpublished or which are available only digitally, a digital upload in an acceptable file format (.aif, .au. .mp3. .ra, .rmi, .wav, .wma and .mp4 are all acceptable).
Recordings are published on compact disk or LP in the United States, with two physical copies of the recording.
Songs and recordings published outside the United States, one physical copy.
Submitting Multiple Copies
To submit physical copies, you should mail the disks or printouts to the U.S. Copyright Office. Media Mail is cheaper, but a little slower, and remember that they will not be able to process your application until they receive them. (Note, however, that while you can't sue for infringement until registration, you can sue for infringement that occurs prior to registration once you are registered). Alternatively, if you happen to live in or near DC, or are lucky enough to be traveling there, you can hand deliver copies to the Library of Congress. This isn't an option available to many people but does eliminate the risk of material being damaged in the mail.
The Library of Congress also requires that submitted materials (this is when you are sending two copies) be the best available edition of the published work, that is to say, the highest quality. Sheet music should be bound. The Library prefers to receive compact discs rather than vinyl discs.
You have to submit a separate application for each work. However, you can register up to ten unpublished sound recordings if they are all made by the same people. Also, you can register sound recordings as "collective work," but this will only protect the individual recordings if they are not available elsewhere. That is to say, you can register your album with one fee, but if you put out a couple of songs as digital recordings separately, you will need to register them separately. The fee is $35 for single-author works or $55 for multiple.
Learn How to Copyright Your Music
If you are looking for more advice on protecting your precious songs or, of course, for high-quality online audio mixing and mastering services, contact Mikes Mix & Master LLC today.