Copyright, and What it Does For Your Songs

Let’s clear up a few things regarding what copyright is and isn’t.


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Standard YouTube Copyright StatementThere are certain areas of the songwriting business that seem to be more based on myth than truth, where what people think they know is not quite on the mark. Copyright, and all of its related terms (mechanical rights, royalties, performing rights, and so on) is one of those areas. As a songwriter,  you need to know what’s right and what’s not.

For an example of the “myth” side of the equation, one needs to look no further than YouTube. The famous “I do not own this video” statement that many put in the “About” field of the video they’ve just illegally posted shows that there is a common belief that as long as you acknowledge that you don’t possess the copyright, you can pretty much do anything you want with it.

It’s similar to grabbing a bicycle from a kid on the street, and before pedalling away with it, you proclaim with a loud voice, “I do not own this bicycle, nor do I have rights to it”, after which you cycle down the street with it and offer it to someone on the corner.

Copyright is automatic upon the creation of any work, and does not even require you to place the copyright symbol (©) with your name and date on it. (Though that can be a good idea. Placing a copyright declaration on something you’ve created indicates to the world that you intend to defend your rights, and there can be value in that.)

For a quick overview of what copyright can do for you and your songs, check out the following list:

  1. Copyright is automatic, once you’ve got something physical (disc, sheet music, etc.) with the music in it or on it; you do not need to apply for it. You do not even have to place the copyright symbol on it, though it is advised.
  2. Registering your copyright is the only reliable way to protect your music from being stolen or used without your permission. Contact your country’s copyright or intellectual property office. It costs anywhere from $35 to $50 in most countries. Several songs that are part of a collection can be registered together for one fee.
  3. “Poor man’s copyright” (i.e., mailing a copy of your music to yourself by registered mail and not opening the package) is unreliable, and has never held up in court. However, in that time period between registering your copyright and waiting for confirmation, it might be a good step to take.
  4. Ideas for songs are not protected by copyright. If you tell your friend about your good idea of convincing the United Nations General Assembly to sing your new song, “I Love the Guy On My Right”, you’ve got no claim if your friend goes ahead and does it before you do.
  5. Copyright can be shared by several people. If you and your 3 bandmates all co-write a song, you all own the entire copyright. That means that if you ever decide to go out on your own and record that song, you don’t need your bandmates’ permission. You are required, however, to share any royalties you ever make from the recording of the song with all copyright holders.
  6. Original melodies and lyrics are protected by copyright. Copyright protection expires 50 or 75 (depending on the country) after the death of the last remaining copyright holder, and then the melody and lyric passes into the “public domain.”
  7. Song titles are not protected by copyright.
  8. Chord progressions are not protected by copyright.
  9. There is no specific law that determines how similar a song is allowed to be to another one. That is determined by judges and lawyers in a court of law.
  10. If you want take a recording that is protected by copyright and use it as a sample in your song, you need the permission of the copyright holder.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle, which includes sound samples, a glossary of terms, and a discography of all songs discussed.

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