Writing your own songs and making recordings are two ways that musicians can literally make money while they sleep, that is because payments from licensing can keep automatically appearing in your mailbox whether you are performing or not. Every time your song plays on the radio, at your favorite restaurant, or as part of a commercial, you (as a copyright owner) can get paid licensing fees. Publishers and organizations like ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, Harry Fox Agency, and SoundExchange all collect license fees and distribute the money to songwriters and bands. Copyright is vital to musicians, and this series of articles will break down everything you need to know about copyright and your band.
What you can copyright
According to the U.S. Copyright Office, U.S. copyright protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. So as a songwriter your song lyrics and melodies are protected by copyright, and as a recording artist your recordings are also protected by a separate copyright. Being granted copyright gives you the right to prevent other people from using your lyrics, music and recordings, but more importantly copyright gives you the ability to earn money from your music.
Your (copy) rights
Copyright actually involves a divisible bundle of six rights that allow you to control how other people use your songs. As a copyright owner you have the exclusive right to allow or deny the (1) adaptation, (2) display, (3) performance, (4) distribution, (5) reproduction, and (6) digital transmission of your songs. And since the rights are divisible, you can allow someone to perform your songs but deny them the right to record them: it’s up to you how your song is used. But perhaps more important than control is the fact that copyright ownership gives you the potential to make money every time someone adapts, performs, prints, makes and sells recordings, and broadcasts or digitally transmits your songs.
Copyright has its limitations, and although you can copyright your songs it does not protect ideas, the titles of your songs or the name of your band. Because copyright is designed to encourage the creation of new works, allowing people to copyright individual words and short phrases could ultimately prevent creativity; just imagine if greeting card companies were able to copyright the phrase “happy birthday!” But don’t be discouraged, your band’s name may qualify for trademark protection. Trademark law is designed to prevent marketplace confusion and can stop other bands from stealing your fans by copying your name. For more details on how to register a trademark visit the website for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
How to copyright your songs
The good news is that in the U.S. if you have written your song down on paper or made a recording of it, known in legal speak as making a tangible fixation, then the song is already copyrighted. In the U.S. copyright occurs at the moment the song is fixed in some way that allows others to read or hear it without you pulling out your guitar to give a live performance. In the U.S. a song doesn’t need to be published to gain copyright: it’s automatically granted when you fix the song in some tangible form.
It is important to carefully choose who you share your song ideas with before you write them down or record them because the author, for the purposes of copyright, is the person who actually makes the first tangible copy of the song, not necessarily the person who came up with the idea. Keep written and/or audio records of your songs and protect yourself! Affixing notice of copyright and registering your song with the U.S. Copyright office can offer you even more protection.
Notice. One way to make people aware that your songs are copyrighted is to affix them with a notice including ©, or circle p in the case of recordings, followed by the year of publication and your name.
© 2013 Jamie Davis-Ponce