How To Copyright Music
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How To Copyright Music

Author: Hugh McIntyre

Date: April 29, 2019

Reads: 644


Hugh McIntyre is an NYC based freelance music journalist. He mostly writes for Forbes, where he publishes several stories per day, on average. He has also written for Noisey, Billboard, MTV, Noisey, Mashable, Huffington Post, The Hollywood Reporter, Mic, Hypebot, Sonicbids, Fuse, Tunecore, Symphonic Distribution, and many more.
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As a musician, you’re going to spend an incredible amount of time creating your art, and all that creativity belongs to you (at least in part).

From writing lyrics to composing music to putting it all together and making sure the melodies are right, the hooks are catchy, and the song is fully-realized, the entire process of crafting even just one tune can take many hours, or possibly even days.

It can then be very tough when you find out someone else has copied something so near and dear to you, but thankfully there are ways to ensure your intellectual property doesn’t end up belonging to someone else.

Learn how to copyright music through the following steps:

  • Understand inferred vs. explicit copyright
  • Create an original song or remix
  • Record or put your song down on paper
  • Fill out the paperwork and submit your work to the U.S. Copyright Office
  • Wait for confirmation of copyright

Filing for a copyright to make sure you own every part of your song is important, and it’s something, sadly, not enough up-and-coming musicians do. In fact, while it has become commonplace for the biggest stars to set this process in motion as quickly as they can, the same can’t be said for a huge number of talents just waiting to breakthrough.

Like so much else, this is another instance when those looking to make it big should follow the lead of those who already have.

Understand Inferred vs. Explicit Copyright

Before I begin talking about the actual steps you must take when it comes to copyrighting your music, you should know if you’ve already created something and put it out into the world in some way, you do already have some legal claim over it.

Whether you’re the biggest musician on the planet or someone who hasn’t yet earned a single fan, if you’ve made an original piece of music and shared it publicly, it’s legally yours. But what does that mean exactly?

If you can prove you crafted a piece of music, some lyrics, or perhaps a complete tune before someone else, you have a leg to stand on if any other artist copies what you’ve done and then also shares that with the world. Perhaps you released a single onto iTunes and Spotify. Maybe you posted it to your SoundCloud page.

Or, maybe you simply shared a recording with some friends but decided not to release it to the public. These are just a few legitimate (and easy to understand) ways you can show the time and date when your idea, and your intellectual property, was created.

Even if you don’t have a copyright on an old song, you can argue it is yours in a court of law if you find out someone else is trying to make it theirs…though the benefits are much better if you have a proper copyright bestowed by the U.S. government.

So, now I’ve explained copyright can be both inferred and explicit, here are the actual steps you need to take if you want to make sure you’re protected under the fullest extent of the law.

Create an Original Song or Remix

There are many articles discussing how to copyright music, but I haven’t seen any that begin where every musician must start: in the creation phase. In order to have something to copyright, you must create something original, and while this may sound obvious (and it is), it’s worth spending at least a little time talking about what it means.

The majority of applications for copyrights when it comes to music will be for wholly original material. These are songs people created from scratch, and they are unlike anything copyrighted before.

Sometimes there are legal arguments when one musician claims something sounds too similar to a piece of music they created before, but those remain relatively rare, considering how much music is actually being made.

For the most part, any artist looking to copyright their music will be doing so for songs they produced and wrote, and they are their own intellectual property, though there are plenty of instances when other parties were involved at some point.

In addition to copyrighting brand new music the world has never heard before, you can also apply to copyright a new version of a song that already exists. This song may be a dance remix of a pop hit, an acoustic cover of a hard rock song, or perhaps an orchestral arrangement of an electronic banger.

There are countless possibilities when it comes to remixes and rearrangements, and if you’re copyrighting one, you’ll only be able to claim the portion you actually created — the music, for example — and not the lyrics, if they were originally written by someone else.

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Record or Put Your Song Down on Paper

It may also be incredibly obvious, but in order to copyright a piece of music, you must be able to actually show it or play it for someone. So, know if you’re humming a melody or if you have a killer hook in your head, you must make it playable or readable in some manner in order to claim it as your own. If someone else gets to it before you and they copyright it, this creative brilliance becomes theirs.

When you are applying for a copyright, you can do so for the lyrics of a song, the music of a song, or even both. But, as is stated above, they can be separate, as another person can re-record your song, and while you’ll hold onto the copyright for the lyrics (if they use them), the new music they apply to the lyrics will be theirs.

In order to be granted the copyright, you must have enough of a piece of work for it to substantial. This means you can’t copyright a song title, a tiny phrase, a word, or even just a chord. These are too small or too short, and no one person can argue they belong to them alone.

For most people reading this, displaying your work will be easy, as you can simply submit lyrics in written form (either actually on paper if you’re going that route, or you can type them out). When it comes to the music, all you need to do is share an audio recording of the tune through regular mediums. If you have an MP3 of your new song, that will do just fine.

Fill Out the Paperwork and Submit Your Work to the U.S. Copyright Office

It might take a bit of time, and you must do it carefully, but filling out the paperwork when it comes to music copyrights is typically fairly simple and straightforward. Thankfully, it has become easy enough that you and your bandmates should be able to do so on your own, and the use of a Lawyer won’t be needed.

This should save you a hefty sum of money, and it means you can do it on your own time (aka whenever you get to it).

Traditionally, copyright forms were filled out via mail, and that option is still available, though I wouldn’t suggest it. Because everything has moved over to digital formats, copyrighting a piece of music (or anything, for that matter) takes longer, involves more steps on your end, and it can even cost more when sticking to older ways.

You must print the form, submit your lyrics on paper (either written or printed), and you have to send in a recording of your music on an accessible format, likely on a CD.

Instead of going through all this, you can do the same things online, submitting your copyright application much more quickly and easily. As an added bonus, the U.S. Copyright Office charges a lower fee if you do it this way.

You can find out more about what formats are accepted and how many copies the government requires you to send when submitting your songs through the U.S. Copyright Office’s website.

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