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Music copyright. HOW it works, and WHY you need it.

The whole music industry moves not just millions but hundreds of millions of dollars every day. Music can generate huge profits.

And as every artist that makes musical compositions or sound recordings wants to earn money, he perfectly understands that one of the first and most crucial things he needs to know is how to protect them. If you’re a musician, you must ensure that your music is well-protected and can’t be stolen. This means you have to learn and understand at least the basics of music copyrights.

Even though most people believe that the music copyright field is highly complicated, it’s not entirely true.
Of course, it might not be the easiest thing you will ever learn, as there are different copyrights for different parts of a musical work. But once you dig deeper into this topic and realize how exactly copyright works for your music, it’ll make much more sense to you. 

So, I’ll repeat it. If you want to earn a livelihood with your music, the first basic principle you must take care of is remaining the same – you must copyright your songs. This step will protect your music from plagiarism and theft. 

Now, when you understand the importance of this knowledge, let’s take it from the top. 

What is Music copyright?

“Music copyright designates legal ownership of a musical composition or sound recording. This ownership includes exclusive rights to redistribute and reproduce the work, as well as licensing rights that enable the copyright holder to earn royalties.”

In other words, music copyright indicates that you are the owner of a musical composition or sound recording, and as the copyright holder, you must earn the royalties. 

If you’re a musician, you must know a few things about copyright law. 

First of all, copyright protection starts from the moment your work is “fixed” in a tangible medium. This “fixation” means that your song is recorded in an audio file or notated in a digital file. So from that exact moment, your music is already protected by copyright. 

Types of music copyright

There are two main types of music copyright: master and composition. 

  • Composition copyright
    This type of copyright is usually held by songwriters, composers, and lyricists. Their music publishers also manage it. Composition copyright covers the arrangement of notes, melodies, and chords in a specific order.
  • Master Recording
    Master copyright covers the specific sound recording that must contain “a particular expression of the underlying musical composition created by performing or recording artists.” Usually, it belongs to the performing artists and their labels. 

Also, you must understand that sometimes the songwriter and the artist are the same people. In this case, the music industry will still see the songwriter and the recording artists as different entities. 

What rights do copyright holders have?

Sometimes people don’t understand what it means to be the copyright owner. So here’s the list of things you can do to a song if you’re a copyright holder:

  1. First, you can reproduce the copyrighted work.
    This is the first right you get as the copyright owner. You can reproduce your track on CD or Vinyl, as well as post your song on music streaming services.
    Every streaming service must have the license to reproduce any song in its catalog.
    Those who own Master recording copyright are paid from streaming payouts, and Composition copyright owners receive mechanical royalties. 
  2. You have a right to distribute copies of your copyrighted work.
    Besides reproducing your music, you can also make new copies of your composition or recording. As the copyright holder, you have the right to sell these copies to the public. 
  3. Create derivative works.
    Derivative works mean advertisements, TV shows, movies, video games, etc. Basically, these are any audio-visual combinations that use components of your music. And only the copyright holder of the musical composition can permit to create a derivative work based on the original song. 
  4. You can perform in public.
    Performing in public means not only live performance but also any kind of an audio broadcast in public. Music in bars or clubs, radio broadcasts, Live shows, and audio-streaming on Spotify or other platforms is seen as a public performance. 

At what point are you considered the copyright owner?

Just creating a song is not enough. You have to take the necessary steps to protect your art. If you write a song, record it, and write it down so that it becomes copyrightable. However, creation an ownership might take some time.

There’s such a thing as the “poor man’s copyright.” It means that the first thing you do after recording a song is e-mailing or saving it, which should be seen as evidence of the creation and ownership of the track. If you send yourself a copy by real mail, it’s seen as better evidence of copyright ownership than an e-mail.

But! Even though you should do all these after creating your song, the “poor man’s copyright” doesn’t guarantee you a high level of protection. In some European countries, it can still be a thing, but not in the US. Instead, you have to do an official copyright registration. 

If you’re writing and playing your music in a band, at some point, the question of who will own the copyright will appear. Here it might be complicated to find an answer.

Usually, the person who writes the song owns the musical work or sound recording. It’s a lot less complicated when one individual owns the copyright in the musical work or sound recording.

And, of course, it’s also widespread for two and more people to be a part of the creation process. In this case, co-authors become co-owners of the copyright, where everyone has an equal amount of interest. For instance, two co-authors own 50%, three co-authors each own 33.3%, and so on. This is a common rule if there’s no other written agreement.

Registering Your Work

Although your music is protected by copyright from the moment of its creation, you need to register it in case someone tries to steal or misuse it. In this case, you will most definitely decide to take legal action.

And in this case, the first question you will be asked is, “Did you register with the Copyright Office?” 

Because when you register your work, it gives you a lot more rights. 

So, when you create your music, you must register it with the US Copyright Office, part of the Library of Congress. You’ll have access to additional benefits like access to federal courts in the case of infringement.

How to apply for registration?

To register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office, you’ll need to fill out an application, pay a filing fee, and add a copy of the track.

While registering your music copyright, you’ll have to file the following forms:

  • Form PA for a composition type of copyright. With this form, you register the creation of words and music (composition.)
  • Form SR  for a master recording type of copyright. With this form, you will register your master or audio recording only.

If you want to register both the composition and master recording, you can fill out both forms.

Adding a copy of the track has multiple requirements. You will have to deposit digital copies or\and printed sheet music, recorded versions, and video examples if there’s any. 

More information on how and what to register you can find in Circular 50: Copyright Registration for Musical Compositions.  

Make sure you read all the circulars related to the application types. You need different types of applications depending on how many authors the song had, whether it was released or unreleased, etc. 

Most importantly, Supreme Court has mandated that when you register your music early, you can file a lawsuit and earn $150,000 plus attorney fees per deliberate infringement. BUT! Only if you register in advance. 

What to do in case your music is used unlawfully.

If someone uses your work without your permission, your music is used unlawfully, and you have a right to pursue legal action.

However, (we’ve already talked about it) your work has to be registered with the Copyright Office.

Without it, you can’t have your statutory damages or attorneys’ fees covered. Basically, if you want to get any kind of compensation, your work must be registered.

Everything is that simple.

Right now, copyright lawsuits are decided in federal court. But the Copyright Office plans to establish the Copyright Claims Board, which will take care of minor copyright disputes. 

What is copyrightable and what isn’t?

This is a complicated topic. For instance, titles of songs, rhythms, musical styles, and harmony are not copyrightable.

While, of course, melodies and lyrics are protected. Short snippets, though, are not always protected.

That’s why it’s always nice to learn a bit about the law and know what type of your work might not be protected.

Cause when it comes to music, it’s always hard to agree on what should be covered and what shouldn’t. 

So, here’s a little list of what can and cannot be copyrighted.

Can be copyrighted

  • Song lyrics
  • Completed songs, jingles, incidental music, symphonic pieces

It cannot be copyrighted

  • Song titles
  • Unfinished works
  • Chord progressions

Once you get your work protected, it will last more than a lifetime. Yes, I’m dead serious. Copyright extends for 70 years beyond the life of the author. If there’s more than one author, the copyright will be extended to 70 years from the death of the last author. 

How do copyright owners make money?

I guess now it’s time to pass on the most exciting topic. When you’re the owner of sound recording rights, you can use your music and make money with its help. You can get royalties from streaming from platforms like Spotify, Amazon, Apple Music, Deezer, etc.

The copyright owner can also grant permission for sync licensing and sampling of your recording. I can mention that you can press and sell physical formats such as vinyl and CDs.

How to earn on composition copyright

Performance royalties

Songwriters have the right to collect publishing royalties. Performance royalties can be one of the ways to get their revenue. A songwriter gets their royalties whenever a song is played on the radio, performed in public, or played in a restaurant or a bar.

To receive those royalties, you’ll have to register with an agency that collects performance royalties. They are called PROs (performing rights organizations).

There are three major PROs in the US:

  • BMI

They are monitoring radio stations and venues for public use of your song. Any time your song is played in public, it generates a performance royalty. As the songwriter of the musical composition, you have all the rights to get your royalties. 

Mechanical royalties

These royalties are related to the creation of physical formats: CDs, vinyl, and cassettes.
Technically, when your composition is streamed on music streaming platforms like Spotify, it’s also a recreation of your song. So you can collect your royalties.
But pay attention. This type of royalties is not collected by PROs.

Can I use someone’s work?

It’s ok to be inspired by someone else’s work. That’s part of creation; this way, you create new compositions and performances. Though, it doesn’t mean you can freely use the works of other people. 

There’re some rules on what you can and can’t do.

If you want to use somebody else’s music, you should get permission directly from the copyright holder, use work that is already in the public domain, and rely on a statutory limitation to the exclusive rights.

Song Covers.

In order to get some exposure, it’s become very common to do covers of songs that are made by other artists. Are you allowed to do that? Yes, you are.

Basically, you can even make a cover without the right holders’ permission. Though, you will have to get a mechanical license and pay 9.1 cents per copy for the use of the musical composition.

So, if you decide to make 500 copies, you’ll have to pay $455. And no one will care how many of them you will actually sell.  

Important laws

And the last thing you should read about in this article is a few laws that are really important for every artist. 

The first is the Music Modernization Act (MMA). The second is the CASE Act.

The first one is responsible for how rightsholders are paid royalties when their work is played online on streaming platforms. 

The second one lets the Copyright Office create the Copyright Claims Board (CCB) and resolve copyright disputes over damages less than $30k in total. It’s supposed to be cost-effective and become an alternative to federal court.

One more simple yet effective way to protect your music is by cooperating with music distribution services. Your work can be copyrighted automatically when you decide to distribute your music with a reliable service. This is also one of the best and most secure ways to protect your work. But you can learn more about how to do it the right way in our next article. 


Now you’ve learned more about what copyright is, how it works, and why you should get it, I hope you’ll make sure all your music is well protected. You must have a clear understanding of how your work is covered by the law, and what you should do to protect it even better. 

Cause once you don’t have to worry about it, you can concentrate on making some money with its help.

Copyrighting lets you be the one in control of what you create and distribute. Moreover, it will allow you to earn money from copyright royalties when others will start using your music.

That’s why don’t be silly, and go register your music.

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