TrueDIY Biz: Ten Copyright Questions Answered

TrueDIY Biz: Ten Copyright Questions Answered

Author: Aidan Rush

Tunecore released a report last week stating that 44% of musicians don’t copyright their work. Without knowing the sample size it’s hard to gauge the accuracy of the poll, but the statistic is baffling to say the least. Even worse, 18% of musicians claim it’s because they don’t know how. In this week’s TrueDIY Business article, we explain why copyrighting your material is absolutely essential, and more importantly, how to do it! Hint: it’s reallllly easy. Also included in our “10 Copyright Questions Answered” is information regarding sampling, compulsory licensing, and trademark. Dig in below!

TuneCore Copyright Indie Ambassador TrueDIY

Do you copyright your songs? Credit: TuneCore SoundCheck Poll

Note: The information discussed below is based on US Copyright and does not necessarily pertain to International Copyright.

1.) Why do I need to copyright my music?
Music Biz Academy says it well: “This [copyrighting] will protect you in the event that someone, somewhere, steals one of your songs and claims it as their own.” If you hear one of your songs on the radio being performed by a national artist, discover that artist is claiming it as their own, and know for a fact you’re not receiving any publishing royalties from the song or mechanical royalties from the song’s sale, you want to be able to cite your song’s copyright as proof of ownership. Registering your song at the national copyright office affords you and only you the following privileges:

  • The right to make copies and duplicate your CD
  • The right to distribute your music
  • The right to prepare derivative works (alternate versions, new arrangements)
  • The right to perform the songs publicly
  • The right to display the product publicly
  • The right to perform publicly via digital audio transmission

2.) Does “Poor Man’s Copyright” hold up in court?
Some of you may have heard about poor man’s copyright, or the idea that sending yourself a copy of your material on a physical medium (known legally as a phonograph, but to us commoners as cassettes, CDs, or vinyl) in the mail with the stamp acting as proof of the date it was created. Simply put, don’t rely on this as adequate proof of copyright. For one, it’s easily faked. There’s nothing stopping anyone from sending an empty, unsealed envelope to themselves in the mail and then inserting the CD and sealing it when it returns. Secondly, it will not hold up in court, should you even make it that far. Lastly, technically one doesn’t even need to spend money on a stamp to claim copyright, because copyright is attained as soon as the music is transformed into a physical medium, or phonograph as the copyright office says. More on this in the next question.

3.) If copyright is attained just by burning my song onto a CD, why pay for the copyright office to do it?
It is true that your work is technically copyrighted once fixed in a tangible medium, whether or not you affix a © on it (or ℗ for phonograph), though doing so can’t hurt. But, filing with the national copyright office does afford you some extra leverage. Most obviously, it’s an established government institution that suffices as a legitimate witness for the date of your copyright. While nothing’s stopping you from burning your song onto a CD, you still need to somehow prove the work is yours and the date it was created. Second of all, registering your work through the copyright office allows eligibility for statutory damages and legal fees in the case of legal action. Otherwise, you might be footing the bill yourself.

4.) Alright, you’ve convinced me to do it the right way. How much will it cost?
Cheap. Assuming you’ll be filing a sound recording copyright (specifically for sounds, not lyrics, sheet music, or production, which are all separate), also known as SR (the fine print can be found under title 17 of the U.S. copyright code, or here).  You can register online (after making a free account) for $35, or with paper the old school way for $65. If you’re interested in saving money, you can register a volume of songs at once for a flat fee of $35 or $65, but it’s smarter to register them all separately as a “collection” if you have the money to do so. Doing this is very important if some of the songs have different authorship. Moreover, if a publisher wants one of your songs, and another artist wants the publishing rights to another one of your songs, it would simplify the process exponentially because each song will have its own registration number.

5.) How long will it take for my copyright to be processed?
Ah, one of the many downsides to dealing with government institutions: time. As of now, the average processing time for filing online is 4.5 months, and the old fashioned method with paper forms is 15 months. However, your song is considered copyrighted (not copywritten, a mistake many people make) as soon as the copyright office receives all necessary information, assuming it’s all filled out properly.

6.) Specifically, what part of my music is covered by copyright? Melody? Lyrics? Chord progressions?
This is a grey area. Typically, melody and lyrics are copyrighted, of course with lyrics being more concrete. In fact, Joe Satriani sued Coldplay in 2009 because he believed they ripped off a melody of his for their massive hit “Viva La Vida.” Chord progressions, as a rule of thumb, cannot be copyrighted. For anyone who’s a fan of pop music, you’ll notice that chord progressions are recycled quite often.

7.) How long will my copyright last?
To simplify things, let’s assume you’re copyrighting material that you wrote for your intended use, and it was not work for hire. If that’s the case, then your copyright will last 70 years after your death, or life + 70 as it’s commonly referred to in the industry.

8.) What’s the difference between copyright and trademark?
The short answer: copyright covers expressions of ideas, while trademark covers logos and brand names.

The long answer from the U.S. Copyright Office: Copyright protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. A trademark includes any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination, used, or intended to be used, in commerce to identify and distinguish the goods of one manufacturer or seller from goods manufactured or sold by others, and to indicate the source of the goods. In short, a trademark is a brand name.

9.) If another musician covers my song without my permission, is that a violation of copyright?
Any musician has the right to cover any other musician’s song. The original artist can’t say no; covering without permission is just a right anyone has. However, if the covering artist wishes to release their cover on a recording, they need to obtain a mechanical license, something that has been made easier recently with companies like RightsFlow and Limelight. The Harry Fox Agency can also clear these compulsory (mechanical) licenses for you.

10.) How do samples work?
There are a lot of myths out there surrounding this one, so beware. The truth is, you cannot use any unlicensed sample in your recording, no matter how significant, how short, or how many lyrics are involved. You must obtain a license for it, which will typically be very expensive if owned by a record label. Many people then ask the question, “how does Girl Talk get away with his music?” He doesn’t. If a label owning any of the recordings Girl Talk samples on his albums wanted to sue for copyright infringement, they could. Probably. There are some out there that claim his work would fall under the parody clause in the free use doctrine, but that might be a stretch. An entire debate could be started on this topic alone, just know that if you plan on sampling anything, you are subject to the whim of whoever owns that recording. They have the final say in requiring you to license the sample.

For more information be sure to check out the following resources!
An informative PDF from the US Copyright Office.
US Copyright Website.
More info about online filing.
More info & forms for paper filing.
More info about International Copyright.

Disclaimer: Indie Ambassador is NOT A LAW FIRM and has no basis to give you legal advice that you can deem safe to use in a court of law. The information and links that you find on this website are for you to choose whether you wish to acknowledge as correct or not.  Although I have researched and highlighted various points and links to place on this website,, nor it’s author in no way purport to have expert knowledge on any subject of copyright law.
  • Brian John

    This is great information! I personally just finished my first copyright experience online, and it was so much easier than I expected. I was able to register the sheet music and the recording (mp3 format) at the same time. Of course, it was my first time so I was extremely concerned that I’d do something wrong and *poof* I’d be out $35.

    I did do something wrong, as a matter of fact, but I received an email about 3 months after submitting the initial copyright request from someone who was extremely helpful, and in less than a week, the issue was fixed, and I got my confirmation!

    The take-away from my experience is there really is no reason NOT to copyright, and a whole host of reasons TO copyright. Like everything in the music industry, it’s not fool-proof, but the peace of mind that comes from having an extra layer of protection (especially when you are putting your music out there to help build your fan base) is priceless.

  • Indie Ambassador

    Thanks Brian! From your comment it seems like you didn’t need much convincing as to whether or not copyright is important, but we’re glad you found it useful!

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