Congratulations! You’ve finally finished recording the music for your first CD, and you can’t wait to get it mixed, mastered, and into the eager hands of your (paying) fans. But before you send that package off to Disc Makers, you’ll need to think about protecting your hard work from piracy by securing a copyright for your music.
While some musicians might have a fair idea of what copyright is, I suspect more of them have a better grasp on copyright mythology than the reality of it. And there are plenty of businesses out there who prey on those who believe the myths. But the facts are these: copyright is not difficult to understand, and getting one for your music is easier and cheaper than you think.
What Is Copyright?
A copyright is legal protection extended by the U. S. Government that covers such original, creative works as books, paintings, photographs, music, and films. Any such work that exists in a physical form can be protected from infringement (theft) by law. Notice I said physical form. You can’t copyright an idea; whatever that idea is needs to be written or recorded somehow. A CD of your music is an example of an original, tangible work; playing a song without writing it down or recording it would not be eligible for copyright.
Do I Need to Copyright My Songs?
The U. S. Copyright Office is very clear on this point: you do not have to register your music. Although a work is considered copyrighted from the moment it is set in fixed form, no legal protection for it exists. Except for work-for-hire situations (in which the employer is the author), someone else could take your work, copyright it, and be forever recognized in the eyes of the law as the original author. Therefore, all musicians should copyright their music to enjoy the advantages of recognized authorship and legal protection.
How Can I Copyright My Music?
As with most things, there are two ways to go about getting a copyright for your music: the wrong way and the right way. The first of these is the so-called “poor man’s copyright.” or PMC. Here’s how it works: the songwriter records his music, writes out the lyrics and chords, and puts the charts and recording in an envelope that is addressed to himself. He then sends it to himself via certified mail and puts the unopened package away in a safe place when it arrives.
While it might sound good, PMC is inferior to the Constitution-based protection afforded by copyright. To begin with, one could simply mail an empty envelope to himself and add the recordings and charts (which may not be original) whenever he wishes. PMC is also only slightly less costly than registering with the Copyright Office. Sending materials in a Priority Mail Express envelope from and to an Atlanta location runs around $23, including collecting an adult signature. Add to that the fact that PMC doesn’t stand up in court against a copyright granted by the U. S. Copyright Office, and it’s easy to see the other way is the better value.
Getting a copyright for your music is easier than you might think. It costs as little as $35, and you can register your work online in as little as 10 minutes. There are services out there that will do this for you, but they’ll charge far more than what you’ll pay directly. (While researching this article, I found services that charged anywhere from $69 to $120; some charged even more.) I suppose they stay in business because they’re able to capitalize on either the ignorance of this process or the fear some have of doing anything with the U. S. Government. I would avoid such services. After all, you’ve probably recorded your music and booked your shows all by yourself. Why stop the DIY now?
If you’re still a little hesitant about jumping in, watch this excellent video. It walks you through the online registration process explains the process of online application:
The following resources contain good information about copyright law. Those published by the U. S. Copyright Office, especially “Copyright Basics” (the basis for this article) , should be read first.
The dates listed after the title of the work are the dates the works were copyrighted or updated. If no date follows the title, none could be found. The date after the URL is the date I visited the site.
Elton, Serona, Esq. “Musical Arrangements and Copyright Law.” January 2011. http://www.copyright.gov/eco/eco-tutorial.pdf. July 29, 2013.
Heller, Annette P. “General Copyright Information.” http://www.trademarkatty.com/copyright. July 29, 2013.
Nevue, David. “How To Copyright Music.” Updated March 2010. http://www.musicbizacademy.com/internet/how2copyright.htm. July 29, 2013.
U. S. Copyright Office. “Copyright Basics.” May 2012. http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ01.pdf. July 29, 2013.
U. S. Copyright Office. “Registering a Copyright With the U. S. Copyright Office.” May 2013. http://www.copyright.gov/fls/sl35.pdf. July 29, 2013.
U. S. Copyright Office. “eCO Tutorial.” February 2013. http://www.copyright.gov/eco/eco-tutorial.pdf. July 29, 2013.
USPS truck image: David Guo