A question often posed to me by songwriters is when to copyright their songs. Under United States law, a work is protected by copyright if meets sufficient standards of originality and is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” (17 U.S. Code § 102) If these requirements are met, then the work is technically protected under copyright law.
However, without federal copyright registration, the work will not receive the additional benefits of registration, such as the ability to sue for copyright infringement. Therefore, I always recommend that clients register their works with the Copyright Office.
Depending on the situation, though, the timing of when to actually register a work might vary. Here are a few guidelines to help you out.
1. If the song isn’t finished yet
If you've written a song but it's not finished or you think it may require changes later on, it's best to wait until the song is actually complete before registering it with the Copyright Office. If you register an unfinished song, then another copyright application will need to be filed when the song is finished in order to cover the additional changes made to the song.
This applies to co-writing with others as well as writing a song on your own. The exception to this is when someone is submitting, performing, or otherwise releasing these unfinished versions, as explained more below.
2. If you're submitting the song for placement
If you write songs for other artists, submit demos to companies seeking a potential deal, or submit songs for possible licensing and placement opportunities, then you should have your work registered before submitting the songs. You want to already have the presumption of ownership and protections offered by federal registration. That way, if you submit a song to someone – like a producer or label – and then something just too similar shows up on an album for one of their artists, you can sue for infringement.
Opinions on this point may differ for those who regularly churn out songs specifically for submissions or for other artists to record. Some argue that it's too expensive and time intensive to copyright every single song they're writing, and would rather focus on just registering the songs that actually get cut. As an attorney, I do have to point out that there is some risk-taking in this philosophy and would rather things be registered than not. However, the ultimate decision lies with the songwriter.
3. If you're planning on releasing a single
If you're not pre-releasing or sharing a new song before the official release date, then the time to copyright it is when the single is officially released. This is because copyright registration requires a publication date, and if the work is unpublished at the time of registration, then the application will have to be filed as unpublished, and another application will have to be filed when the work is published. Not only is this twice the work, but it also will require an additional filing.
4. If you're planning on releasing an EP or album
A group of songs or masters, such as those appearing on an album together, can be copyrighted as a group. The fee ($55) is a little higher than a single-work application ($35), but registering as a group is less expensive than registering each work individually. It's also less labor intensive than doing individual applications for a group of titles.
You can follow this guide to register your own works, but if you anticipate potential issues between co-writers or you're not sure how certain portions of the work were acquired, it's sometimes a safer bet to have an experienced music attorney or service like Indie Artist Resource* handle the registration process for you.
*Copyright registration services offered by Indie Artist Resource are for California residents only.
Disclaimer: This article is for educational and informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. The content contained in this article is not legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific matter or matters. This article does not constitute or create an attorney-client relationship between Erin M. Jacobson, Esq. and you or any other user. The law may vary based on the facts or particular circumstances or the law in your state. You should not rely on, act, or fail to act, upon this information without seeking the professional counsel of an attorney licensed in your state.
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Erin M. Jacobson is a practicing music attorney, experienced deal negotiator, and seasoned advisor of intellectual property rights. She protects clients ranging from Grammy and Emmy Award winners to independent artists, record labels, music publishers, and production companies. Ms. Jacobson also owns and oversees all operations for Indie Artist Resource, the independent musician’s resource for legal and business protection offering template contracts, consultations, and other services designed to meet the unique needs of independent musicians.