Copyright - Shout if From the Roof Tops

I’ve heard it in classrooms. I’ve seen it posted on songwriting forums. It comes up in workshops, associations, and club meetings. It is the question that never goes away: “How do I copyright my songs?” Let’s stop fiddling around and answer it once and for all.

The Law
According to the Copyright Act of 1976*, your songs are copyrighted the moment you record them in some fixed medium. This can be a digital file, a CD, or a piece of sheet music. Therefore, registering your copyright with the US Copyright Office is not a matter of getting a copyright - it is a matter of protecting a copyright. So how is it done?

If I Were a Rich Man
Protecting your copyright requires that you have it registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Doing so is easy and relatively cheap. First, you need to get your hands on the “paperwork”. You can find the forms and all the information you need here:

In the last few years the US Copyright Office has simplified the forms needed for most works. Old forms such as PA and SR have been replaced with the single CO (or eCO for electronic filers). Using form eCO is the recommended method. It is cheaper, faster, and offers other benefits such as online tracking. The fee for form eCO is $35.

At first glance $35 per form would seem to mean $35 per song. Not so! Here’s the trick: the Copyright Office allows you to group songs together as a “collection.” A collection can be any group of songs you define - an album, a soundtrack, or just a bunch of songs you lump together and name. For example, each January I register all the songs I wrote the previous year. On the copyright form I group them as a collection, and name them something like “The Aaron Cheney 2010 Collection.” Every song in the collection gets registered, and I only pay the fee once. Cool.

Though processing can take several months, it is important to note that your copyright is officially registered the day the US Copyright receives your application.

If I Were a Poor Man

One widely-held notion is that a valid copyright can be registered very inexpensively by mailing a copy of one’s songs to oneself. This is commonly known as the “Poor Man’s Copyright”. In this fantasy, the songwriter stands at the front of a courtroom, boldly displaying a sealed envelope that bears a dated government postmark. He then rips it open to reveal his original sheet music, thereby proving his copyright. The audience gasps. The perpetrator is lead away in hand-cuffs. The songwriter triumphs.

I’ve heard this idea propagated by budding and experience songwriters alike. I have even heard college professors advocate it. They are all full of crap. This technique is purely a myth and will not work to protect anything. The truth is you can’t even bring suit in a U.S. court without a properly registered copyright.

Though the process of properly registering a copyright may seem daunting at first, it is actually relatively simple and painless. As far as raising the $35 a year necessary for a "Rich Man's Copyright", here are my top 10 suggestions:

1) Collect aluminum cans.
2) Busk.
3) Paper route.
4) Mow your neighbor's lawn.
5) Skip one visit to Red Robin.
6) Crawl around on theater floors.
7) Metal detector. Beach. Become that guy.
8) Join a pyramid scheme. Earn $35. Quit.
9) Ask your Grandma.
10) Two words: bake sale.

* This post pertains only to US Law. If you are seeking a copyright in other countries your laws will be different.

*Photo by Thwaites Theatre Photos


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