Q. How do I copyright my music?
In fact, you already own a copyright for anything copyright-eligible that you create: music, lyrics, poems, text, photographs, paintings-You name it, if you’ve created it (and recorded it somehow, either physically or digitally), you own it.
(The Copyright Office says: Copyright protection subsists from the time the work is created in fixed form. The copyright in the work of authorship immediately becomes the property of the author who created the work.)
Q. If copyright protection is automatic, why should I register my music copyright with the government?
There are a few reasons you might want to officially register your copyright. Here are a few benefits provided by copyright registration:
- The public can easily contact you about your music. While public contact information is not required to be provided, you do have the option to provide an email address, telephone number, or mailing address at which you can be contacted about your music. If you don’t register your copyright and put this information on file, any potential licensees requesting permission to use your music-which certainly has the potential to benefit you financially-is going to have to do some digging.
- You have the ability to prosecute. Without the official copyright registration certificate, while you technically do own a copyright to the music you’ve created, you’ll need more than a verbal claim of ownership to bring legal action against anyone using your music improperly.
(The Copyright Office says: Before an infringement suit may be filed in court, registration is necessary for works of U.S. origin.)
Q. If I wrote the music and my partner wrote the lyrics, who owns the copyright?
Because the authors of a song automatically own the copyright to that song, you both do-but when you register your copyright, you can specify whatever ownership you like.
When you register your music, you’ll first be asked to specify authorship information. This is the section in which you would indicate that you are responsible for the music and your partner is responsible for the lyrics. Then, you’ll be asked about ownership information.
In one scenario, you might indicate that both authors are the owners of the copyright. You would need no additional documentation to support this claim, since it’s already clear by the authorship information that both individuals contributed to the creation of the work.
In another scenario, you may have hired your partner specifically to create lyrics to your song. If this is the case, you would mention that the second author’s contribution was made under a work-for-hire agreement, in which case you (the person who did the hiring) would take full ownership of the song. Note that while a copy of the work-for-hire agreement does not have to be delivered to the Copyright Office along with registration, you must have a copy of the agreement in your own records.
(The Copyright Office says: If a work is “made for hire,” the employer, and not the employee, is considered the author. The employer may be a firm, an organization, or an individual.)
Q. What if we want to list our band name as the owner of the material?
This is not a problem. Organizations can certainly be listed as owners, and it’s a simple matter to transfer copyright ownership from your name to the band.
One way to do this, assuming that you want to specify the aspects of authorship, you would list you and your partner as authors of the music and lyrics, respectively. Then, for the copyright ownership information, you would list your band. Technically, this involves a transfer of ownership from the individual authors to the organization; as with the work-for-hire agreement, you do not have to provide written documentation showing the agreement between the individuals and the band, but you should have such an agreement on file.
(The Copyright Office says: The copyright claimant is defined in Copyright Office regulations as either the author of the work or a person or organization that has obtained ownership of all the rights under the copyright initially belonging to the author. This category includes a person or organization who has obtained by contract the right to claim legal title to the copyright in an application for copyright registration.)
Another way to do this is, of course, to list the band as author. The band could then be considered the owner with no additional documentation; any documentation between the band members agreeing that any intellectual property created as a group is the property of the band itself would be assumed to exist as a part of the band’s paperwork (and not a part of the copyright registration itself).
Q. How do I copyright an album that includes a cover song?
If you got permission from the initial copyright owner, you’d simply need to mention the existing copyirght during your registration and indicate what you contributed to it (a different arrangement, new lyrics, performance, etc.).
If you did not get permission to use the material, your use is considered copyright infringement.
(The Copyright Office says: Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following: reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords [and] prepare derivative works based upon the work.)
Q. Can I copyright an entire album at once?
In some cases. If your entire album consists of songs for which the same information is true, the entire collection can be copyrighted at once.
Here’s an example: Jim and Bob created ten songs, all in the year 2010, and these songs were never published. Jim wrote all of the lyrics, and Bob wrote all of the music. Jim and Bob can submit all ten songs at once, listing the album title as “title” and the track names as “individual contents.”
Another, trickier example: Jim wrote nine songs himself, but Bob helped him with the lyrics for a tenth song. Assuming that information is to be included in the copyright registration, Jim would have to list himself as sole author for the nine songs, and a separate registration would have to be submitted that lists Jim and Bob as co-authors of the tenth song.
One last tricky example: Jim and Bob co-wrote all the material in 2010, but in 2011, two of the songs were released on Facebook. Jim and Bob now have a collection of material for which the publication information does not match. They would need to submit their eight unpublished songs in one registration; if the two published songs were made available to the public on the same day, they could be registered together, but if the publication information is different for each song, two separate registrations would be necessary.
Q. How do I register a copyright for my music with the US Copyright Office?
You can register your work either directly with the US Copyright Office, or through a third-party copyright registration service (which would then submit your registration to the Copyright Office).
[Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and the above should not be taken as legal advice. See a lawyer or legal adviser to discuss your specific and unique situation.]