US Copyright Office

Anatomy of a Song Copyright – Part 1

By Barbara McMillen


Important Points to Remember about copyright:
In the United States, copyright is secured when a song or other creative work is fixed in a tangible form of expression: that is when the work is created.
Fundamentally copyright is.
• Copyright is the legal and exclusive right to copy or permit to be copied, some specific work of art.
• If you own the copyright on something, someone else cannot make a copy of it without your permission.
• Copyright usually originates with the creator of a work, but can be sold, traded, or inherited by others.

Copyright protection is only available for works that have been set into a “fixed and tangible” form. This means that you can’t copyright an idea or a concept, only its tangible expression. You can’t copyright a song title or the story behind the song.

Copyright happens automatically, the minute you set something into a “fixed form” — even if that fixed form is pen scratches on a napkin. You automatically own the copyright to any creative work of art you produce, the minute you create it.

The truth about the © Sign
In songwriting, the © represents the copyright of the song with is melody, lyric, and possibly arrangement. There is another part of a recorded song, which is represented by a ℗ which is the symbol for the sound recording. I will talk about this is the next article.
The copyright symbol carries no legal weight and has no magical effect on the status of your copyright. There is a misconception that you have to put the copyright symbol on something, or else it isn’t copyrighted. This used to be accurate but is not the case any longer. Forgetting to use it does not cause you to lose your rights related to something you created. There is also a related myth that you can’t use the copyright symbol unless you have registered the copyright. This is also untrue.
The purpose of the copyright symbol and dated copyright notice is to inform people that a piece of art is copyrighted.
The copyright notice generally consists of three elements:
1. The symbol © (the letter C in a circle), or the word “Copyright” or the abbreviation “Copr.”;
2. The year of first publication of the work; and.
3. The name of the owner of the copyright in work.
If you want to add additional notices (such as “All rights reserved”), do so after the name.

Copyright notices are not required for any reason, but they are undoubtedly useful and ought to be included.
As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years.

Registering Copyright
So now that we know copyright happens automatically, you may wonder why bother with the expense of registering your song with the Library of Congress? You may wish to do so because registering copyright allows you to do three things:
• Legally establish yourself as the copyright owner of the work.
• Legally confirm the date of creation.
• Take legal action against someone who infringes on your copyright.
That last one is key. If you expect to be suing people for infringement, you may want to register your copyright. In most jurisdictions, you cannot sue someone for infringing your copyright unless your copyright is registered. The processing time for copyright registration filings can be up to a year long. If your song is out there on social media, streaming, or celestial radio with lots of ears listening, then there is more likelihood of someone infringing, and you may find the need to sue someone shortly.
Also, if you have no other way to prove the date of your creation (which may be the case for unpublished works), registration may be a good idea.
If you can definitively establish the date of your authorship by other means, you can (in theory) wait it out until there is a reason.

Alternative Copyright Registration
The most important thing to say about alternative forms of copyright registration is that there are no legitimate alternate forms of copyright registration.
There are a handful of companies that bill themselves as if they provide some form of copyright protection, but these are not substitutes for actual copyright registration. Their marketing may imply that your work is protected through registration. Still, they do not indicate that they register the copyright on your behalf with any government of any country. They aren’t a substitute for registration, but some may provide a potentially valuable service of searching the internet for infringement.
As of the time of this writing, the fee for registering a work online is as little as $35 (and it’s been that for a long while). There’s nothing to be saved by using an alternate registration service.

Poor man’s copyright is another urban legend that you can effectively obtain copyright by sending yourself a copy of your work via registered mail. The idea is that you have proof that the contents of the envelope existed at the time you sent them, and this can help establish your ownership over the work. The US Copyright office is evident that mailing a copy of your work to yourself has no legal effect. (It seems reasonable to assume that this could still be used to prove a date-based claim to copyright ownership, but the safer route would be just going ahead and registering.)

So in conclusion, copyright is granted the moment you create something and set it down in a “fixed and tangible” form.
You do not need to register a copyright to have one — you have it automatically. However, if you expect to sue someone for infringement, you will need to have your copyright registered. Alternative forms of copyright registration are not recommended.
Registration forms, and additional information about US Copyright can be found at the US Copyright Office.


Our Founder, Barbara McMillen

Founding President Emeritus, Newsletter Editor, Administration & Song Contest Director Barbe founded the DSA in 1987

After running the group for several years as part of the now-defunct Texas Music Association. Currently a working Music Therapist, performer, and Associate Professor of Songwriting and Music Business at Collin College, Barbe is caring for the administrative duties and editing a newsletter for DSA. She is a member of the Producers and Engineers Wing of the Recording Academy. She has produced a number of albums for other artists and her own.

Her songwriting spans the genres of Rock, Pop, R&B to Americana. Her rock musical, Give Me A Break, has been performed in the metroplex and off-Broadway.

Barbara MCMillen

Singer,  Songwriter,  Teacher, and Musician Community Activist.