How to copyright a song

Wondering how to copyright your music? In this blog article, we break it down step-by-step!

You’ve practiced for hours, written incredible songs, scrounged together the money to get them professionally recorded–and now your album is out in the world! Congratulations!

But with publicity comes the potential for someone stealing (and selling) your music. To avoid this terrible fate, make sure you copyright your music.

If you’re not sure how to copyright your music (or, more accurately, register the copyrights for your music), I’ll walk you through the 5-step process.

STEP 1: To copyright your music, first log into the Electronic Copyright Office (eCO) registration website

Copyright.gov is where to go when you need to copyright your music!

If you’ve used copyright.gov to previously register the copyrights for something (like a blog or a book), log in with your same information.

If not, sign up for an account! It’ll only take a few seconds, and it will save you time in Step 4; there are a few screens where you’ll be able to click “Add Me” instead of entering your information over and over.

STEP 2: Choose “Standard Application”

Over on the left side of the screen, find the heading “Copyright Registration.” Then, underneath the big red “Register a Work” title, click “Standard Application.”

One of the first steps when you copyright your music is to choose the Standard Application.

STEP 5: Upload the content you want to register

The final and most important step–make sure the uploaded filenames match the filenames you registered on the “Titles” screen. Double, triple-check…and then you’re done!

When you’re not sure how to copyright your music, the process can seem daunting. But once you know where to start, it’s a pretty clear-cut journey from beginning to end, guaranteed to save you tons of emotional stress (and potentially earn you some money down the road).

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema

A Samurai Lullaby: Cutie Baby

We’ve all heard the all-time classics such as, Rock-a-bye Baby, Ba Ba Blacksheep, Brahm’s Lullaby, and Twinkle Twinkle Star. But for those parents who want some variety, let me introduce a new lullaby that will resound in households everywhere from this day forward: Cutie Baby!

Cutie Baby was constructed in such a way that you can use your little one’s name in the lyrics. All you’ve got to do is replace the word “Cutie” with your child’s name and you’re good to go. If your little one’s name is longish or doesn’t rhyme with baby, that’s OK. All you’ve got to do is truncate the name and add an “a” or a “y” suffix so it does.

For example: David becomes Davy. William becomes Billy. Katrina becomes Katey. Susan becomes Susy. Yolanda becomes Yolandy. Samuel become Sammy. Pretty neat huh?

For those who also write and sing but are too afraid to share your work with the world, I say who cares. The worst that can happen is nothing. But the best that can happen is someone discovers your work and pays you to feature your song in the next Apple iPhone commercial and makes you rich!

Here are the lyrics to Cutie Baby with the sheet music below. You can listen to the simple melody by listening to the podcast down below (song starts at 5:28) or clicking this page which is my official Cutie Baby page with audio.

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Cutie Baby (Copyright # SR0000800220)

Cutie (replace with your little one’s name) babyMama’s here for youCutie babyIs there anything Papa can do?Cutie babyYou look so sweet tonightDream away babyEverything’s gonna be alrightLittle dragon babyGrow up to be so mightyCutie babyEverything’s gonna be alrighty

Cutie babyPapa’s here for youCutie babyIs there anything Mama can do?Cutie babyWe’re so blessed to have youYawn away babyWe’ll always be there for youLittle muffin babyIs there anything more we can do?Cutie babyYou’ve made our dreams come true

Sweet dreams little one.

We love you.

If you are a gay couple or a single parent, you can simply change the lyrics.

I’d love for readers to e-mail me their versions of Cutie Baby using your child’s name. All you’ve got to do is open up the voice recorder on your mobile phone, record, save, name, and e-mail it to me. I’d like to put your version up in this post or on the Cutie Baby page.

Here is the sheet music to Cutie Baby as composed by my wife. It’s really easy to play on the piano or guitar.

A Samurai Lullaby Sheet Music - Cutie Baby

Copyright Protection of Lyrics

dictionary page featuring copyright

A question of definition?

In most countries, most artistic works – including most song lyrics – are protected by copyright. Thus, for a period of time, usually the artist’s life plus 50-100 years, the artist has the exclusive right to determine how and when her art is used or copied.

Song titles, conversely, don’t qualify for copyright protection, so if you want to call your next novel Bohemian Rhapsody to cash in on that lucrative Václav Havel/George Gershwin/Freddie Mercury fan base, knock yourself out.

But copyright isn’t absolute. There are exceptions when the use of a copyrighted work doesn’t need the artist’s consent – these often include things like use in education and reportage.

When is a Lyric Not a Lyric?

But it has to be more than just a couple of words or a phrase. If one of my characters talks of “all my troubles” and another says that someone “died in the church”, have I ripped off Sir Paul McCartney’s lyrics for “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby”? Or am I just using simple, common or garden phrases? The answer’s the latter, of course.

law books

In that case…

I don’t believe the use of one line of a lyric will ordinarily be considered any more unfair than extracting 300 words from a book. Credit your source – as you would a book excerpt – and I believe you’ll stay on the right side of the fair dealing line the vast bulk of the time.

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I’m not suggesting pilfering Freddie Mercury’s whole lyric for the book Bohemian Rhapsody. But I’m confident the character Bismillah the ballroom dancer could ask, “Scaramouche, Scaramouche: will you do the fandango?”

Practising What I Preach

And I’m going to put my money where my mouth is: my forthcoming novel Something Changed features a character whose primary source of emotional vocabulary is song lyrics. He speaks lines from dozens of songs. And where he uses one line, I’m neither seeking consent nor paying a licence fee. I’ll acknowledge every song used, and their composers, and link to a Spotify playlist where my reader can listen to the songs while the writers earn a royalty.

On the couple of occasions my character uses more than one line from any given song, I’m seeking permission and unless it’s silly money I’ll pay a licence fee. If I can’t get permission or can’t afford the licence fee, I’ll change my text. If you’re thinking of using lyrics in your book and want a free copy of the clearance request letter I’ve been using, please visit jonathanwestwood.com/copyright-clearance-letter.

Despite my legal background, I don’t want to end up in court. Especially as I know that, in legal disputes, the side with the deepest pockets usually prevails.

If you have an army of lawyers paid by a music publisher threatening all manner of unpleasant outcomes if their client isn’t given money going up against an author whose sales figures put her below the poverty line, The Suits will invariably browbeat the author into submission. Outside legal practice, this is called bullying.

If you doubt music companies would behave like this, remember that in recent years they’ve sold 22 million CDs that infected buyers’ computers with malware and sued or threatened to sue 35,000 individuals, including the homeless, children and dead octogenarians.

piano music on a keyboard

Play it, Sam…

Meanwhile, music publisher Warner/Chappell coerced people into giving it £1million each year to use “Happy Birthday To You” on the basis of a non-existent copyright it claimed to own. Warners had the deepest pockets with which to instruct the nastiest lawyers to bully lesser mortals for 25 years – until documentarian Jen Nelson challenged Warners’ demand that she must pay $1,500 to use the song in a film she was making. After a long legal battle Warners conceded, accepted the song is in the public domain and was forced to pay $14 million to people it had extorted.

But I’ve spent hours trawling legal databases and I’ve asked several other lawyers. I can’t find any record of this point ever having been litigated in England and Wales and every lawyer I’ve spoken to on each side of the Atlantic has agreed with my view that the use of a single line of a song lyric will not ordinarily amount to actionable copyright infringement.

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Copyrights in a Song: The Songwriting Copyright

Whoever writes the composition is considered the owner of the Songwriting Copyright. For more on What Constitutes Songwriting, see my article here. The revenue streams generated from the Songwriting Copyright include performance royalties (from radio play, live performance of the song, etc.), mechanical license royalties (a fee paid per song for every copy of the song made), synchronization fees (if the song is ‘synched’ to film or television), and others.

If you sign a publishing deal, you are giving up certain rights in your Songwriting Copyright. For more on the different types of publishing deals, see my article here.

Copyrights in a Song: The Sound Recording Copyright

When a musical composition is recorded, a new copyright is created called the Sound Recording Copyright. The revenue streams generated from the Sound Recording Copyright include record sales revenue (both digital and physical), and master use license fees (to use the actual recording of the song in film/tv/etc.).

If you sign a record deal, the record label acquires certain rights to the sound recording copyright.

Which Copyrights in a Song Are Most Valuable? 

In the pre-internet, pre-Napster world, the Sound Recording Copyright generated a great deal of revenue. This is because records sold a lot more, record deals were aplenty,  and all was good (not really, but you knew that). As the Dylan song goes, things have changed. To say that the sale of recorded music has taken a major hit is the understatement of the year. However, while the sale of music has gone down, the overall use of music (in film, tv, radio, internet, streaming, in restaurants, at sporting events, etc.) has never been higher.

When a song is used, i.e. played/aired/performed, it generates revenue for the songwriter. This means that the Songwriting Copyright is hugely valuable in the modern music industry. It is far more valuable than the Sound Recording Copyright in my opinion.

So what does this mean for you as an artist?

First: The ability to write songs has never been more valuable.

Second: While many artists think that a record deal as the main indicator of success, a strong publishing deal may earn you far more money and open a lot more doors in the long run.

Third: Be very careful when signing anything that mentions publishing or songwriting or an assignment of any rights as a writer.

Finally: While artists like Elvis and Frank Sinatra used to make a very good living performing/recording songs written by others, in today’s industry, those that can write their own songs (and put on an exceptional live show) are much more empowered to make a living from music. So long story short…keep writing. Because unless you make a lot of money from touring, it’s tough to be Ringo in 2017.

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