I know some writers who clutch their notebooks to their chests when they meet a fellow artist or who refuse to even play their songs out for fear they'll be stolen. Perhaps they've heard horror stories or had bad experiences themselves.
For the most part, however, it isn't necessary to be quite this protective of your music – the vast majority of fellow artists you come across are honest with no interest in ripping you (or anyone else) off. At least, in my experience.
That being said, there's no reason not to protect yourself and your work properly in this day and age. Read on for how to copyright music in 2019.
Put your song in a fixed medium
This can mean a recording on your phone, writing out the lyrics, or actually scoring your music by hand. It doesn't matter what or how you choose to do it, it just needs to be in a fixed medium – in other words, not simply in your head.
Done that? Congratulations! You've copyrighted your song! At least technically. The moment the song moves from your head to the page, file, CD, or anything else, it's considered copyrighted.
Now, you can stop there – and there are various reasons you may want to. Perhaps you want to tweak the song a bit more or you're in the midst of signing a contract with a publisher who will take over those duties for you. However, for you to be able to exercise your full rights – including being able to sue someone for copyright infringement – your songs need to be registered with the government.
How to register your music copyright
The government's copyright website has plenty of helpful resources – including FAQs, history of copyrights, information on fair use, and more. Your first stop, however, should be the Registration Portal, currently located on the upper left of the header.
It will lead you to a selection screen where you can choose what kind of work you're trying to register – a movie, a book, a song, etc. Choose the appropriate one and select “Register a work” (currently on the right side of the page). Here, it will take you to a login screen. If you don't already have a user name and password, you'll need to create one. Don't worry – it's free!
Once there, you'll need to click on “Register a new claim.” Fill out the form – it can seem really daunting and stressful at first, but it's actually pretty easy. Basically, you'll need your social security number, name, address, and information about your song. If you get stuck, there's helpful tips and explanations on the site itself! You will most likely be using form PA (Performing Arts), although there are other forms that may be applicable to your needs such as SR (Sound Recording).
How many works can I register?
While the paper fee can be pretty steep ($85), the fee to file online is much more reasonable ($35). This may not be a big deal unless you have multiple songs you need to copyright. For example, if you have 10 songs, you could be looking at hundreds of dollars.
Fortunately, there's a way around this – you can copyright multiple songs on the same form. There isn't really even a limit; you can include every song you've ever written if you want (with some limitations). If you write a lot, you may want to register your works once or twice a year – wait until you've built up a collection that makes it worth it cost-wise.
What's changed in 2019?
Last year brought some huge legislation, most notably the Music Modernization Act (or MMA), which is potentially a sea change for the music industry. Although the function of copyrighting your works won't have changed, how you get paid (and possibly how much) definitely will – and for the better.
Writers and artists are now guaranteed to be paid when their works stream digitally – and that includes artists before 1972, most of whom have gotten a very raw deal when it comes to royalties. It also creates a new organization to grant blanket licenses to streaming services (there previously existed no organization to do so), and protects producers and sound engineers for the first time.
In short, this is a huge step to bring the guts of the music industry into the 21st Century – something that has not been updated for decades. Many organizations, including BMI, SESAC, ASCAP, NSAI had a hand in shepherding this through for years – not to mention countless artists, songwriters, and politicians. A rare and important win for artists!
You may have heard of the “poor man's copyright,” which purported to be a solution to costly copyright fees. The basic idea was if you put your song on a tape or CD and mailed it back to yourself certified, you could prove that you wrote it as well as the date of creation. Unfortunately, this did not hold up in court to legal scrutiny and is not recommended as a way to protect your music. There is no alternative to copyright registration!
You may also be wondering how long a copyright lasts. The answer – assuming your work is registered after 1978 - is the life of the author plus 70 years. After that point, your heirs may be able to extend the copyright. If they can't or choose not to, the work passes into public domain – meaning it can be used for free by anyone (think "Danny Boy," or "Camptown Races," etc.). Regardless, that's a very long time to hold a copyright claim – and potentially collect royalties!
Copyrights are a complex issue – so much so that an entire branch of law has been dedicated to it. Fortunately, you don't need to be a legal expert to know the basics and protect yourself. If you feel you need more information – like whether your copyright would be valid in a particular country outside the U.S. or other particular issues – you should consult a lawyer or your affiliated Performing Rights Organization (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC).
To that end, I think it's important to point out that I'm not an attorney and in no way want this post to be construed as legal advice. Everything here is my own viewpoints; remember to do your own research if you feel that's necessary. Hopefully, however, this info can help you protect your music rights and feel confident about playing it for others!
Daniel Reifsnyder is a Nashville-based, Grammy-nominated songwriter, having started his musical journey at the age of three. In addition to being an accomplished commercial actor, his voice can be heard on The Magic School Bus theme song and in Home Alone 2. Throughout his career, he has had the honor of working with the likes of Michael Jackson and Little Richard among many others. He is a regular contributor to several music-related blogs, including his own.