Music 101: Copyrights

June 22, 2021
Madison McMakin

As part of our ongoing Music 101 series, we wanted to explain one of the most important aspects of the music industry: copyrights. As you'll learn below, copyrights don't just apply to music but they are certainly important for musicians. Read on to learn why!

What is copyright?

Copyright is a protection afforded to US citizens by the Constitution to prevent other people from making money off of your work. 

Who can file copyright in the US?

“Any work that is protected by U.S. copyright law can be registered. This includes many works of foreign origin. All works that are unpublished, regardless of the nationality of the author, are protected in the United States. Works that are first published in the United States or in a country with which we have a copyright treaty or that are created by a citizen or domiciliary of a country with which we have a copyright treaty are also protected and may, therefore, be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.”

What does copyright do?

Copyright proves who had the idea first and if anyone tries to take your band name, logo, or music, you can sue them for a pretty good chunk of money, even as much as $150,000 if you win and the thieves have to pay for your legal costs. This is great if you have your art officially copyrighted, but if you don’t it can be really difficult to prove otherwise. Imagine how much it would suck if you had to change your band name 3 years into building a fan base because someone decided to get it copyrighted before you. Although, the second your music is put into a tangible form (written or recorded) technically you, the composer, own it automatically. The reason to get your stuff legally copyrighted is to prove that your work existed before someone else’s. This is where the Poor Man’s Copyright comes in. You may have heard of artists mailing themselves a copy of their music so that the postmark can prove when it was written. Unfortunately, this method doesn’t hold up in court, and can’t help you in any way. If you do get into trouble, the timestamp on your ProTools or Ableton session can be helpful, but won’t grant you full copyright protection.

How do I get a copyright?

You can fill out the forms on the copyright office website, and they even have staff available to help you answer questions from 8:30 am to 5 pm every weekday at (202) 707-6737. Pay your fees, send your files, and you’ll generally hear back from the copyright office in 6 to 13 months depending on if your application contained mistakes, and if you sent it electronically or in the mail.  

Is copyrighting my album expensive?

It can be, but it’s like paying for house or car insurance. It’s worth it to just pay the insurance on the front end, then to pay for a whole new house if it burns down. Copyright ranges from $35 to $45 per song depending on if you register with electronic files of your music, or if you mail in hard copies. You can fill out the paperwork yourself, but it may be worth it to do so on LegalZoom or another easy legal service.

When do I need to get my music copyrighted?

Ideally, you should get your copyrights done before you show anyone. Before you pitch, publish, promote, upload, or perform it. Copyrights can save you a lot of time and money in legal battles. There are horror stories of record labels stealing songs to use for other artists and because their stuff wasn’t copyrighted, they have no leg to stand on. 

What are the most common violations of copyright in the music industry?

Believe it or not, covering a song from favorite band requires one to three things: 1) written permission from the band or manager, 2) a mechanical license to distribute or post the song, and/or 3) a synchronization license if there’s a visual element (applies to YouTube videos, Live TV, Live streams etc.) Covers are not covered by fair use. While most bands won’t come after you in court, they legally have the right to do so because it counts as a “derivative work,” one of the very things copyrights are supposed to protect from, and YouTube, therefore, won’t monetize.