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Music Copyright 101: The Essential Crash Course for Songwriters and Artists!

My law office gets a lot of calls from people in the music business trying to understand copyright. I wanted to write an article dedicated to generally breaking it down and making it simple for you to understand what a copyright is. In this article, I’ll cover music copyright basics.

Copyright Is Ownership. Think of copyright as being synonymous with ownership. For example, when we own a car, we have a document that shows the ownership of the car. In music it’s the same thing. The music is the thing, and the copyright certificate is the document that proves our ownership.

Composition Versus Master. Most artists do not know that there are actually two copyrights in any song. The way it works is, for example, when I write a song with the original chords and original lyrics, that is my composition. I will have copyright in my composition, meaning, my chords, my words and my melodys. Now that you have the composition, you will go and record it so it can be distributed to music platforms. The recorded version is called the “master”. So when we say there are two copyrights in any song: one copyright relates to the original composition, and the second copyright relates to the final recorded version.

This matters because when we do deals, the record labels will ultimatly own the copyright of the masters. But, you as the artist and creator will still retain the rights to your composition. If someone wanted to do a cover of one of your hit songs, they won’t be using the master, they will be doing a cover of the original version of your song. These rights become important later on, in case you ever decide you want to re-record your music (similar to what Taylor Swift has been doing recently). Remember, your original song is the composition. That is how composers get paid on their songs long after they have sold or given the master rights to a record label.

Automatic Copyright. Under the US Copyright act of 1976, you get the copyright as soon as you make the creative work. If you are writing a song, as soon as your write it down on a piece of paper, you have automatic copyright in your lyrics. Another example is if you record your vocals into your phone. You have copyright in that phone recording. You have taken the idea and turned it into something tangible, under copyright law, you have automatic protection.

Register A Copyright. After you create a song, the next step is to obtain a copyright registration through the Library of Congress (specifically, the Copyright Office). You file an application, which is not very expensive, roughly $65 to file. Make sure to give all the information that pertains to your song. Once the application is filed, you will then receive a federal government piece of paper that says what the music is, and who it belongs to. The reason you want to file a copyright, even though you already have protection under copyright law, is because you get all kinds of extra benefits by registering your music with the federal government.

One benefit is that you have the right to sue in a court of law if someone violates your copyright. If someone steals a portion of your song, vocal hook or guitar riff, and uses it in their song, you can sue in a court of law! If you don’t actually have the copyright registration, you are not allowed to go and sue in a court of law, and you will be required to get the registration first. Make this a part of what you do throughout your career and song release process. Make sure to file an application every time there is a new song, and then if something happens, you are ready to rock and roll.

Protect Your Copyrights. The last piece of understanding copyright is, what do you do as far as keeping it and protecting it. When you are done with your career and have this legacy built, make sure that you still own your music. This comes down to the contracts you are going to sign. At some point someone is going to want to co-own your music, or even own your music outright. Early in our careers, we are typically more likely to give away ownership for our music because in exchange we are usually getting help. We are getting help from a record label that promises to make us a “big star” and help us with our social media. That sounds nice, but what you will see in the contracts is that you will forever be assigning your copyright and your ownership in your music to that record label. When you see that language now, you will understand that means that you are giving away ownership to your music. The record label can use it without your authorization, and even sell it to someone else. These are things we don’t worry about early on, but they often become a big deal later on. Especially when you do hit those landmarks in your music career.


Now that you have this in the back of your mind, you can think more strategically. Be at the forefront of your career! Be that independent musician that is able to protect what is yours. Copyright is what’s called “intellectual property,” and it becomes the most valuable asset you have as an artist and musician. We are talking about your catalogue, your music library, and your legacy. That is why it is so important that you understand this, and apply it! Go and actually get your copyright registrations, and when it comes to contracts, be cautious and always try to retain the copyright to your music, whenever possible.

Remember to share this, and check back for more valuable insights on the journey in the music industry.

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