Songwriting and copyright

The Business of Songwriting – The Stuff Songwriters Hate

Most songwriters are the kind of people that just want to write some great songs. Getting the business details right can be distracting. But if your hope is to get your songs out there for others to enjoy, the business side of songwriting, including copyright, mechanical rights, and other important aspects of the business, are important.

I’ll put it out there right now that I am not a lawyer, so if you need solid legal advice you’re going to need to get it from someone who’s in the legal profession.

There is a lot of information online that pertains to protecting your songs with copyright and registration. But like anything online, you need to be sure that the advice you’re getting is accurate and not simply someone’s uninformed assumptions.

So use the following information as simply information, not legal advice. If nothing else, it will point you in some direction, and you can take it from there. Remember that copyright regulations can and do differ from country to country.

Getting Credit For Your Songs

If you’re part of a songwriting collaboration, deciding who gets credited for a song can be tricky. There’s a useful page called “Ten Legal Tips for Songwriters: Credits, Copyrights, and Coauthors” which you will want to check out.

The best bit of advice on that page, by the way, is their first tip: “Determine Who Gets Songwriting Revenue Early On.” Leaving those kinds of details until the song is finished and streaming somewhere can get messy and complicated.

I like advising co-writers to settle the question of copyright before you even start to write. Copyright is equally shared between all writers, but doling out revenue is something that needs to be allotted according to the weight of each writer’s contribution. Unless you have a good reason to weight it toward one person or another, I’d advise you to equally share revenue no matter what any one person’s contribution on a particular song might have been. That has a better chance of keeping everyone happy, particularly if you write regularly with the same person(s).

Mechanical Rights and Royalties

BMI has a page that’s useful for understanding mechanical rights, called “Understanding Mechanical Royalties“. A mechanical royalty is one that’s paid to the creator of a song based on each unit (download, CD, etc.) This page is old (written in 2005, but the fact that they still have it up would indicate to me that the information is still considered current.

Anytime someone records a song you’ve written, you should be getting paid mechanical royalties based on the number of units that have been produced. Another good site for understanding this can be found in an article on “The Balance Careers” website, called “Paying and Collecting Mechanical Royalties.”

Registering Your Copyright

Every time you write a song, copyright is established, whether or not you’ve put the copyright symbol and date on it. The problem is that if someone is keen to steal your song and call it their own (a rare occurrence, by the way), simply saying “Hey, I wrote that!” doesn’t help much in a legal case.

That’s why registering your copyright is so important. Registering copyright means that you’ve informed your national government that you’ve written the song, and the government is required to protect you in a court case, assuming you registered the copyright before a legal argument is launched.

This article, “5 Legal Advantages of Registering a Copyright” is a useful one, though it doesn’t refer specifically to music, the same rules apply. And you can find great advice on this page, “How to Copyright Your Music and Songs.

If you hate digging into these kinds of details, I recommend that you hold your nose and do it anyway. You’ll be happier in the long run knowing that the music you’re putting out there for others to hear has been properly protected.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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