Although cases of complete song theft are comparatively rare believe it or not, it is always best to be prepared for the worst.
These notes may help protect you from song theft.
Should I copyright my song? How can I copyright it? Can I copyright just words? How much does copyright cost? Can I copyright online? What happens if I don't copyright? What can I do if my song is stolen?
These are the seven most common song copyright questions we receive at International Songwriters Association. So if any of the above concern you - just read on!
• Why copyright at all?
I suppose, basically, there is a feeling that somewhere, there is (or ought to be) an international body which will protect your copyright and pursue anybody who infringes on it - a sort of copyright police force as it were.
Unfortunately, there is not.
You as a songwriter, are responsible for protecting your own work, unless you have assigned your song to a music publisher to exploit it on your behalf - whereupon the publisher should take on the responsibility of pursuing infringers on your behalf, (which, given the cost of initiating and pursuing legal actions, might be just as well!).
As a result of there not being any statutory body willing to pursue wrongdoers on your behalf, various services have grown up which offer simply to register your work, leaving you to pursue the offenders.
So, what is the legal position?
The legal situation under Common Law, is that once you sit down and write the song, you own it.
In other words, in order to own it, you do not have to register it with anybody, post it to yourself, give it to your local clergyman - or whatever.
From the moment it goes down on paper, you are the its legal owner.
But let's put it on a more mundane plane.
Suppose you got your trusty hammer and a few nails and created a table, you would not expect that in order to "own" it - you would have to register it with somebody.
You built it - you own it.
Well it is no different in the case of a song.
You wrote it - you own it.
Of course being the owner, and proving you are the owner, are not the same thing!
If an envious neighbour broke into your home some night, stole your table and then claimed he had made it - could you prove you were the real creator?
And it is exactly the same with your song.
Proving that you are its creator in the first place, may not be all that easy, and at some stage, if there is a dispute over ownership, you may be called upon to provide proof of ownership.
Producing your mother before the judge to say she saw you write the song, may (or may not!), be quite as good as producing the Archbishop of Canterbury to say that just after you wrote it, you lodged a copy with him for safe keeping.
In other words, at the end of the day, it is a matter of how credible your witness (or your chosen method of proving ownership) is.
• Copyright Law
By a number of international decisions, notably the Berne Convention and the Universal Copyright Convention, your song is protected to a greater or lesser extent in almost every other country of the world.
Most countries also passed their own national Copyright Acts during the last century, and there would have been subsequent amendments which updated the law to cover use of music on records, on radio, on TV, in films etc.
In the UK, two major Copyright Acts, in 1911 and 1956, (and the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988) form the basis on which most of a songwriter's rights rest, although the concept of copyright law goes back to the Statute of Anne (1709).
The main point I am making is that in the UK, you are not obliged to "officially" copyright your song, because as soon as you have written it down or made a recording of it (whether amateur or professional), then copyright exists in law, from that moment on.
This situation is much the same in most countries, although in the USA, the practice has long been to "register" your song in the Federal Copyright Office in Washington, on payment of a fee and that is the route I recommend, particulaly as it is open to non-US residents.
However I should stress that although this is indeed a government-run organisation, it does not offer to pursue any infringer on your behalf - it simply offers to register your copyright. You will still have to do your own pursuing!.
In the UK, even if you place your song with a publisher, you remain the first owner of the copyright, and in some continental countries you always remain the owner and in effect only grant a license to the publisher to do such things for you as print the song, place it with a record label, collect the royalties, etc.
By the way, you may not always be the first owner of a copyright if you were employed by someone else to create it. For example, an advertising executive penning a jingle may very well be its creator, but if he or she was paid to write it, the agency, and not the writer, may actually own the copyright.
In the UK, copyright lasts for the whole of your lifetime and for seventy years after that. If two songwriters write the song together, then copyright continues for seventy years after the death of whoever dies last.
For example. most people thought that "Happy Birthday To You" just had to be out of copyright since it had been around for so long (since 1893 actually). But it was still in copyright up to 2015 due to the longevity of its writers, and although nobody was going to sue you if you sang it at your kid's birthday party without paying a royalty, royalties were technically still due and were duly collected by the publisher AOL Time-Warner if somebody recorded it, included it in a film, or reproduced the words in a book or magazine. The song was still earning $2,000,000 per year at the time the copyright period finally expired!
• What can you copyright?
Although you can copyright a complete song, or just the melody, or indeed just the words (but not usually the title), copyright only protects the work itself - and not necessarily the "idea" behind the work.
[Having said that, a songwriter just recently brought an action in the USA, claiming that his suggestions "inspired" another writer's song, although he is not claiming to have written one word or note of the actual song itself. However, that case which is pending as I write, has yet to be decided upon].
Notwithstanding all of the above, in our experience, most copyright disputes do not arise from the alleged theft of an entire unpublished song. That is most unusual.
Most legal actions arise instead from the alleged theft of some lines or some snatches of melody from another published song.
• How to copyright your song
In any event - how can you do something to protect your work?
Most songwriters usually choose to effect copyright protection by any method which will give them a dated receipt for their material - preferably, though not necessarily, from a source totally independent of the writer.
Accordingly, you could in theory effect a type of copyright protection by depositing your song with somebody, and obtaining from them a dated receipt.
If you are going down this route, I would recommend asking a bank or a lawyer/solicitor simply because banks rarely expire, and although solicitors are not eternal, their legal practices are generally sold on to another lawyer, so it should be possible to dig up the proof and produce somebody to verify that proof, many years hence, should a dispute arise.
This usually costs money, and some banks no longer provide deposit services.
Other songwriters choose to post the material to themselves in an official Post Office registered envelope, keeping the envelope unopened in a safe place, along with the registration certificate, until needed.
The theory behind this method is that you are simply using the Post Office, rather than a bank, or a lawyer (or indeed the Archbishop Of Canterbury!), as a witness to back up your contention that on a certain date, you were in posession of the material whose ownership is now being challenged.
[Some of the commercial copyright services suggest it this method - which they often refer to as the "poor man's copyright!" - is not valid, on the grounds that if you post an item to yourself, a claimant could allege that you subsequently tampered with the envelope and changed the contents. Of course, if you use a tamper-proof envelope (purchasable at most stationers), that argument may or may not be valid. However, it is a method which is at best, unproven.]
In any event, if you insist on going down this route for every song you have written, you will end up with a large number of these envelopes, so from sad experience, can I say that it is a good idea to write the name of the song on the rear of each envelope!
Lyrics can be posted on their own, or (if a melody is also to be protected), a rough tape or manuscript, can be enclosed in the envelope, and normally, the letter "C" in a circle, followed by the year, is written on any copy.
As I said, it is not the most recommended method!
• Online Copyright Services
If you type the words "Song Copyright" into Google, you will come up with a large number of commercial online Song Copyright services. Most of these suggest that you upload your song or lyric onto their site, so that they can then issue you with a receipt.
Costs can vary wildly, so it pays to shop around. Yo might also want to check the length of time that the service has been in business, simply because any business can fail, and with it may go your peace of mind!
Incidentally, we know quite a few writers who simply send themselves (or a third party), an email comprising the words of their song, plus an MP3 attachment of the melody.
This email (when it comes back to you a few seconds later), will be dated and timed, and although we all know that it is possible for somebody to alter the date or time on their own PC, there should be a digital trail via your email service, showing the real date it went through the system.
Basically, with all methods used, in the end it all comes down to how credible the courts find the method utilised to be.
Will they think a Post Office registered envelope is sufficient? Will they trust your bank manager? Will they accept the email proof? Is it possible they might doubt the word of the Archbishop of Canterbury? (Perish the thought).
So, if using one method, why not think of using two?
That is what I do.
The important thing is to do something. The time you forget to do it, will be the time your ownership is challenged, so first things first. Write the song. Copyright the song. Promote the song.
• US Copyright Service
In America, it has long been the practice, although not a legal requirement, for songwriters to register their songs through the Register of Copyrights, Library Of Congress, Washington DC20599, USA. This organisation will send you a Form PA. There is a fee for each song copyrighted in this manner.
The Library Of Congress Copyright Office is on the web at
and you can download forms from that site, or you can write to
U.S. Copyright Office
101 Independence Avenue SE
Copyrighting a song through the United States Copyright Office involves the following steps:
• Write and compose your original song.
• Ensure that it meets the requirements for copyright protection, which include originality and fixation in a tangible form (such as written sheet music, a recorded audio file, or both).
• Gather the necessary materials, which typically include the following:
(1) A completed application form (Form PA for a Performing Arts work)
(2) The filing fee (check the Copyright Office's website for the current fee - at the moment I am writing this, it is $ 35 per song)
(3) A copy of the song (sheet music and/or recorded audio)
(4) Lyrics, if applicable
You have two options for submitting your copyright application:
(a) Online Registration
This is the recommended method as it's faster and more convenient. Visit the official website of the United States Copyright Office (copyright.gov) and navigate to the electronic Copyright Office (eCO) registration system. Create an account (if you don't have one), complete the online application form, and upload the necessary files. Pay the filing fee electronically.
(b) Paper Application
If you prefer the traditional approach, you can submit a paper application. Download the appropriate application form (Form PA), print it out, and fill it in with the required information. Prepare a hard copy of your song (sheet music and/or recorded audio) and make a cheque or money order for the filing fee payable to the Register of Copyrights. Mail the completed application, payment, and copies of your song to the Copyright Office.
Once you've submitted your application, the Copyright Office will review it. The processing time can vary, but it generally takes several months for the application to be processed. During this time, your song is considered to have copyright protection, even though the official certificate has not been issued yet.
If your application is approved, you will receive a copyright certificate in the mail. This certificate serves as official documentation of your copyright ownership. It's advisable to keep this certificate in a safe place.
While waiting for your certificate, you may choose to include a copyright notice on your song, consisting of the copyright symbol ©, the year of first publication, and your name. Although it's not legally required, it can provide additional notice of your copyright and may help deter infringement.
[Although the Copyright Office provides a long-standing method of registration - it is simply that and nothing else. Do not expect them to call in the FBI if somebody steals your song - but the fact that a government organisation is running it, should mean it will not go out of business in the very mear future!]
Remember, copyright laws can be complex, and it's always wise to consult with an intellectual property attorney or legal professional for specific guidance regarding your situation, and your country.
• A word of warning!
In our experience, most so-called "copyright" disputes are in reality "percentage of ownership" disputes, where s number of people agree that they each had some hand, act or part in writing the song, but disagree as to how much each of them contributed.
If possible, it is best to sort this out before commencing any collaboration.
Perhaps you might both agree in advance (in writing), that irrespective of who actually wrote what, all credits and all royalties will be split 50-50 (or whatever).
Alternatively, you can draw up separate agreements for every song after each work is completed, dividing the prospective royalties on the basis of who wrote how much of what.
The disadvantage with the latter procedure is that once the song is finished, arguments over percentages can delay the promotion and signing of the song while the matter is ironed out to the satisfaction of both parties.
Taking care of the paperwork first, is the best way of avoiding arguments subsequently.
Copyright Songwriter Magazine, International Songwriters Association & Jim Liddane: All Rights Reserved
If you have wandered onto this page by accident, then you may very well be wondering what "The Knowledge" button above is all about.
ISA • International Songwriters Association (1967)
"The Knowledge" is a free multi-part course which takes you from thinking up the basic idea for your song, through using AI or Artificial Intelligence to help improve your writing skills, to penning the title, the lyric and the melody. It then covers plagiarism (what to do if you're told your song sounds like another one!) and copyrighting your song, so that you can take action if your work is stolen.
Finally, it deals with selling your song, promoting your demo, music publishers, putting your songs on the web, and in movies, or on television, getting the money in, raising cash to fund your career via crowd-funding, before setting up your own music publishing company so that you get to keep all of the money! And that blue button at the bottom of each lesson simply takes you to the next lesson.
If however you would like to go back to Lesson 1 and start the course (it will take about 90 minutes to complete), then just press HERE!
This site is published by the International Songwriters Association, and will introduce you to the world of songwriting. It will explain music business terms and help you understand the business concepts that you should be familiar with, thus enabling you to ask more pertinent questions when you meet with your accountant/CPA or solicitor/lawyer.
Writing A Song •
However, although this website includes information about legal issues and legal developments as well as accounting issues and accounting developments, it is not meant to be a replacement for professional advice. Such materials are for informational purposes only and may not reflect the most current legal/accounting developments.
Every effort has been made to make this site as complete and as accurate as possible, but no warranty or fitness is implied. The information provided is on an "as is" basis and the author(s) and the publisher shall have neither liability nor responsibility to any person or entity with respect to any loss or damages arising from the information contained on this site. No steps should be taken without seeking competent legal and/or accounting advice