Registering Copyrights for Musicians

Copyright is a form of intellectual property law granting exclusive rights to the creators of intangible assets, such as music. Under the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, which the US signed in 1989, copyright is granted the moment the intellectual property becomes fixed in a tangible form.

In other words, the moment your write down or record a new song, you are automatically granted a copyright. Unfortunately, that copyright does not have much viability under a court of law, and  you should consider officially registering your copyright with your government.

Officially registering your music is a voluntary, but important step if you plan on commercially exploiting your recordings or songs. It will legally protect your intellectual property should somebody else blatantly copy it, or if somebody claims you have copied their work. While copyright infringement doesn’t happen often, every year there are always a few stories of a relatively unknown artist making a claim against a major pop act. To make a claim, or defend against one, the most important piece of evidence is the date the work was created and published. The best way to prove this in a court of law is with a properly registered copyright.

If you are a resident of the United States, you can easily register your works with the Library of Congress online at the United States Copyright Office. At the writing of this article, the registration service costs $35. To save money, you can register many works at once, as a single collection.

The process is actually quite easy. Until registration was available online, I procrastinated doing so for my own songs. Today I registered some new pieces in less than 30 minutes. This outline will show you how easy it is to do, and hopefully encourage you to consider it for your own music.

How To Register Your Copyright

To get started, head over to http://copyright.gov and follow the link to the eCO (Electronic Copyright Office). The registration process involves three steps:

1) Application

This is where you fill out all the information about yourself and your works, and therefore is the most confusing part of the process.

First you must select your type of work:

  • To register the recording of your music as well as the underlying composition, choose Sound Recording.
  • If you are only registering the underlying composition, select Work of the Performing Arts.

Note that for copyright to exist, the work must be in a fixed, tangible form such as a recording or sheet music.

Next you will enter the titles of your work. If you are registering multiple songs under one claim registration, you will need a title for the whole collection. This could be the title of the album, or something less specific. For example, I just registered my latest album, Tributary, plus a number of recordings I created for other purposes, like licensing. I decided to call this Cameron Mizell Anthology. That title is entered as a “Title of Work” and each song is entered as a “Contents Title.”

When registering multiple works under one claim, the ownership must be the same for every work in the collection. In other words, every song must be written by only you, or have the same co-writers on each track. If the writer credits vary from song to song, you can still register the pieces as one claim if all the writers are part of the same umbrella entity, such as a publishing company, and the copyright is registered to that entity.

2) Pay the Registration Fee

Pretty self-explanatory.

3) Submit Your Work

Once you’ve paid, you’ll have to submit your work to the Copyright Office. You can do this by either shipping physical copies to the office, or uploading electronic copies online. Considering the heightened security measures at most government offices, it’s probably best to submit your work electronically. In fact, their official instructions advise “that CDs/DVDs packaged in standard full-sized jewel boxes are more likely to survive the mail radiation process than those packaged in slim-line cases.” Yikes.

Sound recordings can be submitted electronically as MP3s, WAV or AIFF files, or any of the acceptable formats listed in the help section.

If you are uploading a large number of songs, I recommend uploading at 128kbps MP3s because the eCO system will time out after 60 minutes of uploading. Smaller files will simply upload more quickly.

If your work is commercially available, for example you are officially registering your album released last year, my understanding is that you will have to send physical copies anyway. I recommend doing this registration process before you release your music so you can submit electronically.

What’s Next?

Once you have completed your registration, you’re done! I’ve learned that the Copyright Office doesn’t file every copyright registration claim right away, but should information on one of your works come into question, they will pull it from their database, see the date they received your claim, and process as normal.

Copyright Alternatives

Finally, I should mention alternatives to copyright such as the Creative Commons. Some people believe that copyright law is too restrictive and actually hampers the creative expression. Copyright law was first established as a financial incentive for creators of intellectual property, but over time critics have been concerned that the expansion of copyright laws actually discourage creative collaboration.

I admit that I am no expert on this debate, but I understand that it is an important development in my line of work so I pay attention. If you would like to learn more, check out the Creative Commons website.

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