Why independent songwriters should register the copyright for their music
When you submit a song for copyright you’re simply proving the date of submission of your work. The fine folks of the copyright office don’t sit around listening to every submission to see if they’ve heard it before. That would be an impossible task. When you write or record your song, technically, you’ve created it — and thus you own the copyright to it. By submitting a song to the copyright office, you’re protecting your music simply by acknowledging the date of its creation.
It’s also important to note that certain aspects of your song are not protected even if you’ve registered the copyright. These include:
* chord progressions
* the overall idea or concept of your song
* and a title or short phrase
Just think about how many songs have used cliche ideas like “I wish you were here,” or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Also, imagine how many copyright infringements there would be if the I – V – vi – IV chord progression could be copyrighted. On the other hand, melodies and the actual lyrics are very much covered under copyright protection.
Beginning the copyright registration process
The website for submitting your song for copyright in the United States is http://www.copyright.gov/. On this website, you’ll be able to print forms for mailing in the music you want to copyright, or you can submit your music for copyright online, which makes submitting even easier.
When it comes time to copyrighting your music, there are two forms you can use as a songwriter. They are Form SR and Form PA. Technically, there are three forms, if you consider the fact that there’s also a short-form version of the PA form. But that offers the same protection as the PA form. SR stands for Sound Recording, while PA stands for Performing Arts. So how do you know which one to use? The following is from the Copyright Office’s website and will answer that for you:
When to Use Form SR (Sound Recordings)
Use Form SR for registration of published or unpublished sound recordings, that is, for registration of the particular sounds or recorded performance.
Form SR must also be used if you wish to make one registration for both the sound recording and the underlying work (the musical composition, dramatic, or literary work). You may make a single registration only if the copyright claimant is the same for both the sound recording and the underlying work. In this case, the authorship statement in Space 2 should specify that the claim covers both works.
Form SR is also the appropriate form for registration of a multimedia kit that combines two or more kinds of authorship including a sound recording (such as a kit containing a book and an audiocassette).
When to Use Form PA (Performing Arts)
For registration purposes, musical compositions and dramatic works that are recorded on disks or cassettes are works of the performing arts and should be registered on Form PA or Short Form PA. Therefore, if you wish to register only the underlying work that is a musical composition or dramatic work, use Form PA even though you may send a disk or cassette.
Examples of the Proper Use of Forms PA and SR
Jane Smith composes words and music, which she entitles “Blowing in the Breeze.” Even though she records it, she is not interested in registering the particular recording but only in registering the composition itself. If she decides to submit “Blowing in the Breeze” for copyright registration, she should use Form PA.
Emily Tree performs and records Jane Smith’s “Blowing in the Breeze” after complying with permissions and license procedures. If Emily decides to submit her recording for copyright registration, she should use Form SR.
The same principles apply to literary and dramatic works. A recorded performance of an actor speaking lines from “Hamlet” could be registered on Form SR as a sound recording. The claimant in the sound recording, of course, has no copyright in the underlying work, “Hamlet.”
Copyright registration costs…
There is a cost associated with each application, whether it’s a Form PA or From SR. Check the Copyright Office’s website for the most up-to-date fees. The good news is, if you’re copyrighting your own music, you can submit multiple songs under one application for one application fee. So if you’re copyrighting an album of ten songs, as opposed to copyrighting them one by one, you’ll save a few hundred bucks when protecting your work. Plus it saves you the paperwork of copyrighting all of your songs separately.
Poor-Man’s Copyright, and Other No-No’s
It’s also worth mentioning that there are a couple makeshift copyright alternatives that songwriters occasionally like to talk about. I don’t recommend doing these. The most popular is called the “Poor Man’s Copyright.” This is when you physically mail a recording of your song to yourself via certified mail and keep it sealed. Supposedly the postmark on the envelope will date your music and therefore protect you if someone comes along after that and steals your song. A newer version of this idea is simply putting your song on YouTube or another time-stamped social media outlet. The idea is that your music is dated and therefore protected by the time stamp on the social media site.