1) So where should we start?
There are two distinct copyrightable elements to every recorded
piece of music i) the musical work – the written arrangements
of notes and lyrics and ii) the sound recording – the physical
recording of a performance of that song.
So if you record a cover version of a Prince song, you are the
creator and owner of the sound recording. Prince is the owner
of the underlying musical work. It is a simple enough
distinction but something that is essential for understanding
the ins and outs of music copyright and the music business in
For example, performing rights organizations (ASCAP, BMI,
SESAC) and the Harry Fox Agency will collect and distribute
royalties for your musical works. In contrast, the non-profit
organization SoundExchange will collect and
distribute digital performance royalties for your sound
recordings (think plays of your track on Pandora and satellite
radio). When you register your works with the Copyright Office,
your musical works will be listed on a PA copyright form. Your
sound recordings will be registered with a SR copyright form.
You will use a © symbol to announce to the world your ownership
in a musical work. Your sound recording copyrights get their
own symbol: ℗
2) Do I need to do anything to have a copyright
in my sound recording or musical work?
In legal speak an original work is ‘copyrighted’ when it is
‘fixed in a tangible medium of expression.’
What does this mean in real speak? Your original material is
copyrighted the moment you write it down, record it into your
iPhone, transcribe it, etc. You don’t have to register your
work with the copyright office, put a © next to the song title
on your lyric sheet, or mail yourself a copy of your record to
have a valid copyright.
3) Should I even register my songs with the
Filing your musical work or sound recording with the US
Copyright Office will still provide you, the copyright owner,
with significant benefits.
Here are some incentives – if you file a completed copyright
form within three months from the release of your work or prior
to an infringement, you can recover attorneys’ fees and up to
$150,000 in statutory damages per violation. Filing will
also provide a clear record that you are the true owner.
Think of registration as an insurance policy against possible
future unauthorized uses of your work. Timely registration can
make or break the financial feasibility of an infringement
lawsuit. Registration is relatively cheap ($55),
and can be done
online. In many instances one registration form can
cover numerous works.
4) Is there anything I should think about when
writing music with someone else?
Copyright law has some special rules for co-writers. When two
people sit down with the intention of writing a song they are
usually both owners of the resulting musical work. Copyright
law refers to this as a joint work.
As joint owners, both
writers can exploit the musical work in certain ways (for
example place the song in a film or advertisement) provided
they pay their co-writer a share of the fees. Get that.
Each writer can individually license the song without obtaining
the permission of the other! ou should also know that in
a situation where one writer contributes a definable section –
for example the lyrics – the lyricist remains a joint owner of
the musical work even if his/her lyrics are later removed.
Although these are some of Copyright’s default rules for joint
works, it is always a good idea for co-writers to enter into
written collaboration agreement. This is especially true
if you want different fee splits or rights to apply.
5) Anything to consider when recording and releasing a
Once an artist releases their musical work, anyone can create
and distribute their own sound recording of the work (i.e.
release a ‘cover’) as long they secure a mechanical license and
pay the owner of the musical work a ‘mechanical royalty’
(currently 9.1 ¢ per copy of the song).
Although this might sound complicated, it’s a fairly painless
process that can be done online via Harry Fox Agency or others.
As long as you secure that license you do not need the
permission of the songwriter or publisher.
And don’t forget, when you cover a song, you are the owner of
the sound recording. You can register with the Copyright
office. You can stop unauthorized duplications. You can
collect the SoundExchange royalties we discussed in question 1.
But that mechanical license does not cover synchronizing the
musical work to video…. Meaning? If you want to make a music
video or if someone wants to license your sound recording for a
film or commercial you are going to need permission and a sync
license from the songwriter or publisher.
Music copyright law can be an intimidating world, even for the
If you would like to dig deeper, I recommend starting with some
of the resources at the US Copyright Office.
Beau Stapleton is a music attorney in Los
Angeles California representing a diverse collection of clients
including producers, managers, artists, publishers, composers,
writers, supervisors, music libraries, and digital content
creators. Prior to becoming an attorney Beau was a major
label recording artist and the owner of a music publishing