Any links on this page that lead to products on Amazon are affiliate links and I earn a commission if you make a purchase. Thanks in advance for your support!

Music Business 101: How to Copyright Your Music (For Composers & Songwriters)

by | Music Business | 0 comments

If you are serious about a career in music as a composer or songwriter, you must understand the basics of copyright and how to copyright your music.

Copyright provides the framework that allows you to create musical works that are protected by law from theft, unauthorized use or infringement.

By understanding how copyright works and learning the rights that are granted your musical compositions by law, you’ll discover how you can create income from your works.

Copyrighted Music = Ownership

In essence, a copyright on your work is a claim of ownership of that work.

Moreover, ownership gives you the rights to exploit that work through forms of licensing like sync licenses, mechanical licenses, and performance licenses.

It is these licenses that allow you to earn money from your creative efforts!

Let’s get into the basics and see how it works.

Copyright Basics

Musical compositions are protected by U.S. copyright laws under the U.S. Copyright Act. The copyright law states:

“Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors of ‘original works of authorship,’ including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works.”

This protection is available to both published and unpublished works and lasts for the author’s life, plus 70 years.

Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  • To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work;
  • To distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  • To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • To display the copyrighted work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work; and
  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

As the creator and owner of a composition or song, you are in control of these rights and are free to grant these rights to others. This is most commonly done through licensing.

Licensing allows music users such as record labels, TV and film production companies and advertising agencies the rights to use your work, in exchange for compensation of some kind.

To learn more about music licensing, check out my Music Business 101: Making Money In Music Through Music Licensing article.

When Is Music Protected By Copyright?

When you compose a piece of music or write a song with music and lyrics, your work is protected by law from the moment it’s fixed in tangible form.

The U.S. Copyright Office states:

“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.

Only the author or those deriving their rights through the author can rightfully claim copyright.”

What that means that as soon as it exists on paper, recorded on a sound file or stored on a computer it’s protected under copyright law.

Composition Copyrights

When you create a new musical work and put it in some tangible form, you get copyright to the musical composition.

The musical composition consists of the notes, melody, chords and lyrics that make up the work.

Sound Recording Copyrights

When you create a new musical work and record it, two separate copyrights are created, one each for:

  • the actual music composition
  • the sound recording of that music composition

Master Recording

The sound recording is your recorded version of the composition and is frequently referred to as the master recording.

It’s important to understand that there can be multiple sound recordings of a music composition. For example, The Beatles’ recording of “A Hard Day’s Night” is one, and Alvin and the Chipmunks’ recording of the song is another.

Note: Alvin and the Chipmunks had to get a license to be able to record and release their version of the song legally.

Copyright Registration

It’s important to know that your work is copyrighted even if you do not register it with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Registering a musical work is recommended as it gives you additional protections that an unregistered work does not receive, such as:

  • a public record of the copyright claim
  • the ability to file an infringement suit in court
  • statutory damages and attorney’s fees reimbursement in court actions

Poor Man’s Copyright

To save money, budget-minded composers and songwriters have tried using the “poor man’s copyright” method of mailing a certified copy of the work to themselves and leaving it unopened.

The idea is that the postmark will provide proof of date of authorship.

According to the Copyright Office, “… there is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration”.

You also lose all the additional protections listed above if you use this method, so it’s not recommended.

Notice of Copyright

Though it’s not a legal requirement to post a notice of copyright to a work, it’s recommended that you do.

The proper way to post copyright notice is illustrated in this example:

© 2016 Red Rock Music. All rights reserved.

The © indicates the copyright notice for the actual musical work (music and/ or lyrics).

The formatting is:

  • the symbol © or the word “Copyright” followed by;
  • the year of first publication of the work, and ending with;
  • the name of the owner of copyright of the work

The additional text “All rights reserved” is frequently added to show that all rights afforded under copyright are reserved for the owner.

℗ Notice

On CDs, you’ll see that ℗ is inserted after the ©. ℗ refers to the sound recording of the musical work.

So, on CDs you’ll see this copyright notice:

© ℗ 2016 Red Rock Music. All rights reserved.

If you have a publishing company (and you should!), you will put the company’s name after the date rather than your own name.

How To File A Copyright Registration

While you can file a copyright registration via mail or online, the online method is preferred and is cheaper.

The U.S. Copyright Office handles all registrations.

A Single Application for one song with music and/or lyrics with only one author and owner can be filed online for $35.00. You can register both the music composition and the sound recording at the same time.

A Standard Application must be used if there is more than one author or owner. The online filing fee is also $35.00. You can register both the music composition and the sound recording at the same time.

You will also have to upload a copy of the work. Acceptable formats are:

  • .doc
  • .docx
  • PDF
  • mp3
  • .aif
  • .wav

The preferred audio format is mp3 as it will have the smallest size and the website has some file size limitations.

Application Filing Time

Due to the volume of applications, it can take up to 8 months to hear back from the Copyright Office that your registration is completed!

Registering Multiple Works

If the idea of spending hundreds of dollars registering your works doesn’t sit well with you, know that it’s possible to register a collection of works for one price.

For published collections:

  • all works must be owned by the same copyright claimant

For unpublished collections:

  • the copyright owner or owners must be the same for all the songs.
  • there must always be at least one author common to all the songs

For more information, download the following PDFs:

Copyright Registration of Musical Compositions and Sound Recordings PDF

Copyright Registration for Musical Compositions PDF

For bloggers, here is a helpful article on understanding copyright and DMCA (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act):


As you’ve seen, copyright is not difficult to understand.  Make sure you use what you’ve learned here to protect your works so you can make money from them.

Up Next: Music Publishing And Licensing 101: Sync And Master Use Licenses