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ISA Song Copyright

US Copyright Office, Washington DC, USA
US Copyright Office, Washington DC

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!


Although cases of complete song theft are comparatively rare, it is best to be prepared for the worst. These notes. prepared by Jim Liddane, may help protect you from song theft!

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.

However, 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 need 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.

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.

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 in some night, stole your table and then claimed he had made it - could you prove you were the creator?

And it is exactly the same with your song.

Proving that you are its owner 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 one week 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

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).

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.

But, 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 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.

[However, 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.

Of course, 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 well be its creator, but if he 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 still due and were collected by the publisher AOL Time-Warner when 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 that time.

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 in Nashville, 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

Anyway - how can you do something to protect your work?

In the UK and most other countries (apart from the USA), 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 can effect a type of copyright protection by depositing your song with anybody, and obtaining from them a dated receipt.

If you are going down this route, I would recommend 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!

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 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 secure, on the grounds that if you post an item to yourself, the other 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].

In any event, if you decide to go down this route for every song you have written, you may 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.

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.

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 we 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, but 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 (currently $35) 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
Washington DC
20559-6000, USA

[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!]

A word of warning!

In our experience, most so-called "copyright" disputes are in reality "ownership" disputes, where two people agree that they each had some hand, act or part in writing the song, but disagree as to how much each of them wrote.

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 each song after the 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.

The Knowledge

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