What type of copyright to choose?
There are a number of forms you may need to fill out and file, along with the appropriate fees, with the Library of Congress to protect your particular type of work, but for our purposes here, we should focus on the two most important for musical works. First, there is the Form PA. This is what you fill out to protect an underlying musical work. This underlying musical work is the copyright to a particular song and not the actual recording of the song. In other words, if you play a song onto a work tape for the purposes of copyrighting the song, you aren’t copyrighting the actual recording, but rather the underlying musical work.
Form SR is usually reserved for master recordings, where you want to copyright the actual sound recording to prevent others from making copies of your masters. This type of protection is what most recording artist and record companies are worried about. Of course, with the Internet today, a lot of people are really into downloading or otherwise getting copies of outtakes, demos, or other non-licensed sound recordings of your work. So in some cases, it may be necessary to protect those types of recording too. The last thing you want are bad recordings of your songs being passed around for free.
Of course, there are a number of forms that may apply to your work, so you want to make sure that you get the correct one for the protection you are seeking. Again, please check with the Library of Congress for more information on the subject.
How to file for your copyright
Filing for copyright protection is really pretty simple. You can download the forms at www.copyright.gov/forms, or just write to:
Library of Congress U.S. Copyright Office 101 Independence Avenue S.E. Washington, D.C. 20559–6000 Or call them at (202) 707–3000.
The forms are fairly self-explanatory, and there are easy instructions to follow. Once you have received your registration information, you are protected for your life plus 70 years.
Again, it’s important to note that a registered copyright gives you the right to file suit, the ability to recover statutory damages, and the right to ask the court to force the infringing party to pay your attorneys’ fees if you prevail in an infringement suit, as well as the right to injunctive relief.
If you are concerned about the cost of filing a single copyright on every single song that you have written, you should consider filing a collection of your songs as a compilation work. However, you must meet certain requirements before you can fill out the Form PA for a collection of works. First, all of the works in a compilation that you intend to file must be unpublished. Second, the works must be by the same writer, or that writer must be have co-written at least part of each song, and the same party or parties must own all of the rights in the works and the collection as a whole. You must put the songs on one CD or other recording, labeled with the song titles and order, and you must give the compilation of songs a single title, such as My Songs, Volume I, or whatever you wish, such that the compilation can be uniquely identified.
Co-ownership of copyright
But what if you co-wrote your songs? Who owns the individual copyrights? The established practice among professional writers is that if there are two writers, they each own half of the song. If there are three writers, they each own one-third of the song, and so on. Of course, you have to take into consideration who among your cowriters have signed publishing deals, and the nature of each publishing deal, so that you can discern who will end up with what portion of the total copyright.
Sometimes when two people co-write songs, there is a lyricist and a music writer. In these instances, who owns the music and who owns the lyrics? This comes up quite a bit because some people are better at writing words and some are better at writing music. The work should be considered as a whole if the intent of the writers is to create one composition. Therefore, both writers will share in ownership of the copyright. Furthermore, the lyrics and the music will both be covered under the same copyright so that nobody can just copy the words or just the music. Of course, if the song is an instrumental, it’s copyrighted and owned by all the parties who contributed to the song.
But what if you and your band co-write a song? This can get pretty tricky. Just because your bass player, lead guitarist, keyboard player, or other instrumentalist wrote their instrumental parts doesn’t mean that they have cowritten the song. If you completely write the lyrics and the music (chord changes, melody, and structure of the song) for the underlying musical work before you bring it to the rest of the band for them to work up their parts, they are not co-writers. They have just written their parts and/or arrangements to your song. Unfortunately, this can cause a serious rift between band members, as history has shown us. There are several acts out there that have had a good degree of success, only to find out a year or more later (the usual time before performance royalties start to roll in and after their initial success) that the songwriter or main songwriters of the band are making more money from the underlying musical works.
You can rest assured that this has caused the breakup of many a band, but that is just how it is. The actual songwriters are the ones who are going to get those royalties, and not the band as a whole. However, if you and your band decide to co-write a song, each of the band members will get writer’s credit. Under the Copyright Act, it takes two or more writers to be joint owners, and each must have the intent to create a joint work that is to be considered one work as a whole.