Protecting Your Creative Rights: A Musician’s Primer on Copyright and Publishing

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If you’re reading this, you’ve probably long dreamed of having a career in music. The bright lights. The screaming fans. The fortune. The fame. The paperwork…

Yeah, no one ever talks about that last part.

There’s a lot of administrative work that goes into monetizing music at a large scale.

It may not be as cool as shredding out a guitar solo with your teeth, but it’s just as important to your career. And a first step to protecting your ability to make money from your music is to copyright it.

What’s A Copyright And Why Do I Need One?

A copyright is just what it sounds like: An exclusive right to make and distribute copies of your music.

But in order to claim copyright of a work, you must first set it down in some form, because according to US law, copyrights only “protect original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”

OK, so what does that mean in English?

Contrary to popular belief, copyrights don’t protect “ideas”. They can only protect unique works of creative expression, like a specific song or a recording of that song. And, you can only claim a copyright once that “unique expression” of yours is put down on some kind of tangible medium, whether that’s digital or analog, and whether it’s in audio form or as sheet music.

Two Types of Copyright

In music, there are two basic types of copyright: A “Performing Arts” copyright and a “Sound Recording” copyright.

Performing Arts (PA) copyrights apply to songs themselves, and are typically held by the artist or songwriter.

According to US copyright law, a “song” is considered to be the melody, lyrics, and the arrangement. You can’t copyright a chord progression, a common phrase, or say, a bass line, unless it is so prominent that it meets the criteria of being a “melody”.

Meanwhile, a Sound Recording (SR) copyright applies to the “master recording” of your song.

It’s a copyright of the final recored version that you release to the public as an MP3, CD, or vinyl record. In the old paradigm, these were almost always held but the record label or publishing company, but today, many independent and self-releasing artists may own their own “masters”.

Do I Need to Register A Copyright?

Technically, a copyright exists the moment “an original work is fixed in a tangible medium.” As soon as you record it, it is copyrighted. But proving when you recorded it could potentially be an issue if there is ever a dispute. So registering your copyright with the Library of Congress can give you additional protection in case you ever need to defend your copyright.

Unless you really hate simple paperwork, don’t let anybody hustle you into charging to file your copyrights for you. Some companies provide this service for a fee, but it’s almost always more expensive than doing it yourself, which costs $35 for a single work, or $65 for a collection.

To register a copyright in the US:

  • Go to copyright.gov
  • Create an Account / Log In
  • Follow the directions to file a SR form
  • Fill out the additional PA form information

It’s worth noting that you can also opt-out of the copyright system if you like. If you aren’t so concerned with protecting your right to determine who can use and profit from your work, you have the option of publicly declaring your works to be part of the “Creative Commons“, thereby giving up some (or all) of your rights in order to allow others to use your work freely.

Making Money from Publishing

Now that your song (©) and your master recording (℗) are both copyrighted, you should find ways to “exploit” them. The word “exploit” has a negative connotation, but in music business legalese, it basically means “make money from.” Don’t worry. Your songs won’t rise up in rebellion against you. (Probably.)

As a songwriter or performer, you’re entitled to performance royalties every time your song is performed. That’s your payment for writing the song. But as a publisher, you can also license your music for others to use for additional revenue.

A music publisher is responsible for the administrative duties related to making your music public, such as licensing your songs for use on cover records, in broadcast, in live performance or on film, and for collecting your royalty payments. In exchange for their services, publishers typically take 50% of all the publishing revenue the song generates.

Alternatively, companies likeCD Baby,Songtrust, andTuneCore offer publishing deals, or “publishing administration services.” They’ll handle the paperwork, usually for a 15% fee, and collect all of the royalties on your behalf, so you’re free to focus on creating.

If you’re signed to a label, they’ll often act as your publisher. (Since major labels generally front recording costs, they usually take ownership of the SR copyrights as well and collect those royalties as part of their payment, in addition to collecting part of the publishing fees.)

Thankfully, with a little bit of paperwork, you can “publish” your own music if you like, and get paid directly every time that your song is played or purchased. To do this, first, you’ll need to register as both a songwriter and a publisher with a Performing Rights Organization, or “PRO.”

What is a Performing Rights Organization?

PROs are organizations that collect performance royalties on behalf of publishers and copyright holders.

Obviously, you can’t call every bar, venue, radio station, and record shop in the county to collect your royalties. So how do you collect any of your hard earned money?

That’s where PROs come in. The major PROs are:

  • ASCAP: The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers
  • BMI: Broadcast Music Inc.
  • GMR: Global Music Rights
  • SESAC: Society of European Composers (This one is invite only.)
  • SoundExchange*

*Note: SoundExchange focuses exclusively on digital non-interactive royalties from services like SiriusXM and Pandoraon behalf of SR copyright owners and performers (usually labels and artists). So, regardless of which PRO you choose, you should also sign up with SoundExchange to make sure you aren’t missing out on any royalties. Oh, and it’s free!

Which PRO Is The Best?

It’s kind of a Coke vs. Pepsi situation. They all provide the same service, they just do it a little differently.

ASCAP has no sign-up fee, but charges $50 every time you register a submission. BMI charges a $150 sign-up fee for individuals ($250 for companies), but no per-submission fee.

ASCAP hires a firm to randomly monitor radio stations in order to determine royalty amounts. BMI has stations fill out logs.

Aside from slightly different payment schedules, that’s about it. Do a little research and see which company sounds right for you. Co-writing between artists on different PROs is a little more complicated, so be sure to consider that when making your choice.

As an artist, you can only sign up with one PRO. But, as a publisher, you can sign up for multiple PROs. A publisher mustbe affiliated with the same PRO as an artist to publish their music.

When you’re ready, sign up online, register your copyrighted material, and wait for the royalty checks to roll in!

OK, maybe there’s more to making money in music than that. Tune in for the next installment, where we’ll go into some more details about how to make money by licensing your music!

Brad Pack is an award-winning audio engineer who lives in Chicago. He has worked for radio stations like NPR, in the studio with artists like William Beckett, and at live sound venues like House of Blues. He has a master’s degree in audio production, and is currently teaching, working as a freelance audio engineer, and writing for sites like SonicScoopThe Pro Audio FilesReverb.com, and Vintage King. Get in touch with him at PunchyKickProductions.com. Special thanks to Katie Crain for her contributions in editing this piece.

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  • Unless ASCAP has changed something the information for writer is incorrect. ASCAP charges a one time registration fee of $50 and there are NO charges per song registration

  • I have been with ASCAP since 1998 and there has never been a song registration fee as long as I have been a member. Aside from that, this is a very well done article. 2 other things to note…1. Most song writers and publishers in Nashville do not file a copyright with the Library of Congress until a song is publicly released as it is rather cost prohibitive to do that for every song. However…2. registering with the Library of Congress does give you the possibility of recouping a certain amount in attorney fees should a claim ever go to court