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Music Copyright: What Musicians Should Know about Copyrighting Music

What should musicians know about music copyright laws? In this article, I’ll give you the basics of how copyright law works, what the law applies to, the two different kinds of copyrights that apply to a song, and what musicians need to know about copyright laws to safeguard and profit from their work. I’ll also provide a few definitions and some suggestions on where to learn more about this topic.

Key Takeaways

  • Copyright protection begins the moment your music is created and fixed in a tangible form.

  • Registering your music copyright, while not mandatory, provides legal advantages and stronger protection.

  • Understanding the difference between composition and sound recording copyrights is crucial for proper rights management.

  • Musicians must be proactive in protecting their music from infringement through legal actions and preventative measures.

  • Various organizations can help musicians collect royalties and navigate copyright issues.

Music copyright

Understanding Music Copyright Basics

Definition of Copyright in Music

Any aspiring musician needs to know the basics of music copyright law. Musicians who work hard at their art risk loss of credit to music thieves unless they learn how to protect themselves and their creations. Copyright protection is present at the creation of an original work, meaning that as soon as a song is written or recorded, it is automatically protected by copyright law.

Importance of Copyright for Musicians

Musicians today must not only understand the basics of music copyright law, but also have the practical knowhow to effectively safeguard their creative work. If you’re a newer musician, you need to know copyright laws for:

  • Protecting your music against infringement and plagiarism

  • Receiving royalties you are legally entitled to when your music is used

  • Not infringing or breaking the law in regards to other people’s music or intellectual property

Even if you’re not a new musician, you should be familiar with these music copyright fundamentals to save yourself from any potential headaches in the future.

How Copyright Law Applies to Music

What should musicians know about music copyright laws? In this article, I’ll give you the basics of how copyright law works, what the law applies to, the two different kinds of copyrights that apply to a song, and what musicians need to know about copyright laws to safeguard and profit from their work. I’ll also provide a few definitions and some suggestions on where to learn more about this topic.

Types of Music Copyrights

Composition Copyright

Composition copyrights cover the music and lyrics of a song. This type of copyright is created the moment the song is written down or recorded. Typically, songwriters or publishers own these copyrights. For instance, if you write and record your songs, you’ve got two copyrights under your belt.

Sound Recording Copyright

Sound recording copyrights pertain to the specific recording of the song, sometimes called the master or mechanical copyright. These are usually owned by recording artists or labels. Independent musicians who produce their own recordings for commercial use can own both copyrights.

Differences Between the Two

The main difference between composition and sound recording copyrights lies in what they protect. Composition copyrights protect the music and lyrics, while sound recording copyrights protect the actual recorded version of the music and lyrics. Understanding these differences is crucial for musicians to navigate the legal aspects of the music industry effectively.

Steps to Register Your Music Copyright

Why Registration is Important

Registering with the U.S. Copyright Office is one of the most important actions you can take to protect your music. It ensures that you have legal documentation of your ownership, which is crucial in case of any disputes or infringements. Without registration, it can be challenging to prove ownership and claim your rights.

How to Register Your Music

To register your music, follow these steps:

  1. Prepare Your Materials: Gather all necessary information, including the full legal name and addresses of the owners of your copyright, any co-authors, the year of completion, release date (if your music is out), and the nation in which your copyrights were released. You will also need audio files if you’re registering sound recordings, and lyric and chord sheets if you’re registering compositions.

  2. Submit Your Application: Visit the U.S. Copyright Office's website and fill out the appropriate forms. You can register single tracks, albums, and even music videos. Make sure to provide accurate and complete information to avoid delays.

  3. Pay the Fees: The cost of registering a copyright can vary. As of 2024, the fee for a basic online registration is $45. For more complex registrations, the fee can be higher.

  4. Wait for Confirmation: After submitting your application and payment, you will receive a confirmation email. The registration process can take several months, so be patient.

Costs and Timeframes Involved

The cost of registering your music copyright is relatively low compared to the potential benefits. Here is a quick overview of the costs and timeframes involved:

Knowing how to copyright music is essential for any musician looking to protect their work and maximize their earnings. With these tips, you'll make the most money and abide by copyright laws.

Protecting Your Music from Infringement

In the present day, when anyone with a cellphone can create music-related content, understanding music copyright infringement is crucial for everyone. Learning about copyright infringement and protection is not only about securing your own rights, but equally about respecting the rights of other creators.

Common Types of Infringement

Music copyright infringement can take many forms, including unauthorized reproduction, distribution, and public performance of your work. Illegal downloads and unlicensed streaming are rampant, with billions of dollars lost annually in the music business. Understanding these common types of infringement can help you better protect your work.

Legal Actions Against Infringement

If you find that your music has been infringed upon, there are several legal actions you can take. These include sending a cease-and-desist letter, filing a lawsuit, and seeking damages. Registering your music with the USCO provides the strongest protection for your work and makes it easier to take legal action.

Preventative Measures

To protect your original music, take the necessary steps to secure your creative output. Record your songs and/or write them down to ensure they are copyrightable. Additionally, consider using alternative, zero-cost methods for securing your music copyright ownership, such as the USPO date stamp and seal. Finally, respecting the rights of other creators is a fundamental practice in the music industry.

Earning Royalties from Your Music

Types of Royalties

Musicians can earn various types of royalties from their music. These include performance royalties, mechanical royalties, and synchronization royalties. Performance royalties are earned when your music is played on the radio, TV, or live venues. Mechanical royalties are generated from the sale of physical or digital copies of your music. Synchronization royalties come from licensing your music for use in films, TV shows, or commercials.

How to Collect Royalties

To collect royalties, musicians need to register with performance rights organizations (PROs) like ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC. These organizations help track and collect royalties on behalf of the artists. Additionally, services like SoundExchange and The MLC can assist in collecting digital performance and mechanical royalties. It's crucial to understand the process of licensing, as it allows others to use your music in exchange for a payment known as a royalty.

Organizations That Help Musicians

Several organizations can help musicians navigate the music business and ensure they receive the royalties they are entitled to. PROs like ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC are essential for collecting performance royalties. SoundExchange focuses on digital performance royalties, while The MLC handles mechanical royalties. These organizations play a vital role in helping musicians earn money from their intellectual property.

Key Music Copyright Cases

Like music itself, music copyright cases and law have evolved through the years as well, adapting to how music is recorded, distributed, performed, and consumed. For example, the 1908 case of White-Smith Music Publishing Co. v. Apollo Co. involved an infringement claim against a company that created piano rolls of copyrighted songs. That case prompted Congress to establish a mechanical reproduction right and a compulsory mechanical licensing system for musical works, which was later updated for the age of digital distribution.

Arnstein v. Porter

Since the music industry—both in terms of songwriting and recording—has played an important role in shaping some of the main principles of copyright law over the years, it is important for musicians and others in the music community to be aware of some of the key music copyright cases and to understand the principles affecting the creation and protection of a given song or sound recording.

Arnstein v. Porter: This landmark music copyright case was crucial in laying the foundations of the transformative use test under the first factor, but also for setting out some guiding principles for evaluating parodic works under the fair use analysis.

Other Landmark Cases

Through these impactful music copyright cases, musicians can learn about how copyright law protects songs and determines infringement. From providing some guidelines on how copyright law protects original works and distinguishes unprotectable elements to establishing principles adapting our current laws to the digital sphere, musicians can see that copyright is an important part of their craft.

Lessons Learned from These Cases

The question of what is covered by a copyright has been the subject of countless lawsuits. While this is great business for lawyers, it can be costly for musicians. Many big-name acts have been sued for copyright infringement, some successfully, some not. It can be very difficult for a judge and jury to understand and decide about infringement cases, so often they will hire experts to explain exactly how the law is supposed to work and what music or other creative content is protected.

Navigating Copyright in the Digital Age

Digital Distribution and Copyright

The rise of digital distribution has revolutionized the music industry, making it easier for musicians to share their work globally. However, it also brings new challenges in protecting intellectual property. Musicians must understand the nuances of digital copyright law to safeguard their creations. Platforms like YouTube and Spotify have specific guidelines and tools to help artists manage their rights, but it's crucial to stay informed about changes in these policies.

Streaming Services and Copyright Issues

Streaming services have become the primary way people consume music today. While they offer great exposure, they also pose significant copyright challenges. Artists often struggle with fair compensation due to complex royalty structures. It's essential to know how these platforms calculate royalties and what rights you retain as a creator. For instance, Spotify uses a pro-rata model, which can be less favorable for independent artists.

Social Media and Copyright Concerns

Social media platforms are a double-edged sword for musicians. They offer unparalleled opportunities for promotion but also increase the risk of copyright infringement. User-generated content can lead to unauthorized use of your music. To combat this, platforms like Instagram and TikTok have implemented copyright detection systems, but they are not foolproof. Musicians should regularly monitor these platforms to ensure their work is not being misused.

Resources for Learning More About Music Copyright

For musicians looking to deepen their understanding of music copyright, there are numerous resources available. Staying informed is crucial for protecting your creative work and ensuring you receive the royalties you deserve.

Discover a wealth of knowledge on music copyright with our extensive resources. From expert videos to industry templates, we have everything you need to navigate the complexities of music copyright. Visit our website to explore these invaluable tools and propel your music career to new heights.


Understanding music copyright laws is essential for any musician who wants to protect their creative work and ensure they receive the recognition and compensation they deserve. From the moment a piece of music is created, it is protected by copyright, but taking additional steps such as registering the copyright can provide further legal benefits. Musicians must also be aware of the nuances of copyright law to avoid infringing on others' work. By familiarizing themselves with the basics of music copyright, musicians can safeguard their art, navigate the complexities of the industry, and focus on what they do best—creating music.

Frequently Asked Questions

What should musicians know about music copyright laws?

Musicians need to understand how copyright law works, what it applies to, the two different kinds of copyrights that apply to a song, and how to safeguard and profit from their work. This includes knowing the basics of copyright protection and registration.

Why is it important for musicians to understand copyright laws?

Understanding copyright laws helps musicians protect their work from infringement and plagiarism, ensures they receive royalties they are legally entitled to, and prevents them from infringing on others' intellectual property.

When does copyright protection begin for a piece of music?

Copyright protection begins the moment music and/or lyrics are recorded, set to paper, or otherwise fixed in a tangible form, according to the U.S. Copyright Office.

Is it necessary to register music to have copyright protection?

While copyright protection begins at the moment of creation, registering your music is voluntary. However, it is highly recommended as it provides legal benefits and stronger protection.

What are the two types of music copyrights?

The two types of music copyrights are Composition Copyright, which protects the music and lyrics, and Sound Recording Copyright, which protects the actual recording of the performance.

What should musicians do to protect their music from infringement?

Musicians should register their music, understand the common types of infringement, take legal actions when necessary, and adopt preventative measures to safeguard their creative work.


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