Tip of the Month for Canadian Songwriters


To my CANADIAN songwriting friends, here’s a helpful tip from SOCAN, Canada’s performing rights organization….

What is copyright?

Copyright is a bundle of rights granted by law to creators of original work. The public performance & communication right, which SOCAN administers on behalf of its members, is only one of these rights. In Canada, the copyright in a musical work exists for the life of the creator(s) plus 50 years after the death of the last surviving creator.

Why is copyright important?

Copyright protects specific forms of intellectual property, which are creative endeavours that can be protected under the law.

Does SOCAN copyright my songs?

No, SOCAN cannot copyright your songs for you. In actuality, copyright is automatically granted as soon as an original work is fixed into a tangible form. This means that as soon as you write it down, record it, make it into a computer file or fix it in any other way, it is your copyright. However, in order to protect your copyright, registering your claim to legally document ownership is best. Registration of copyright is useful if you ever need to prove that the work is indeed your own copyright- protected property.

How do I formally register my copyright ownership in Canada?

Contact one of the following or visit their website for further information:

Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO)


Songwriters Association of Canada (members only)


SPACQ – The Society of Authors and Composers in Quebec


SARTEC (members and non-members) for French language copyrights


Or contact the U.S. Library of Congress



Copyright Made Simple

I frequently receive questions from young songwriters regarding the US Copyright Law.  “How do I ‘copyright’ my song?“, “What if someone steals my song?“, etc.   Most of these questions come from unfamiliarity with the law and/or with common industry practices.  In this blog post, I will attempt to answer those questions and provide a simple understanding of the law, as it pertains to your songs.

imagesFirst of all, if you are a songwriter keep in mind that the US Copyright Law is what makes it possible for you to actually earn a living with your songs.  Copyright has always been important, but is of particular importance today in an age of file sharing, disc burning, streaming and illegal web downloads.  Songwriters and publishers alike should make it a priority to make others aware of copyright law.  Get involved with organizations like ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, NSAI and others and join the fight to protect your rights as a songwriter.

Note:  I just learned from my staff that today is, Talk Like A Pirate Day at Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.  Unfortunately, it would seem that every day for the last 10 years has been “Act Like A Pirate Day” all over the world, as a new generation of music users is in a habit of stealing music rather than buying it.


The “copyright” in a musical work is an exclusive legal right given to the originator of the musical work.   If you write a song, then you own the copyright to the song, unless or until you formally assign the copyright to another entity.  There are actually 5 rights wrapped up in the copyright.  We often call this a “bundle of rights”.  The bundle of rights for musical compositions is described as follows:

1)  the right to reproduce copies of the work (print, recorded, etc.) 

2)  the right to prepare derivative works from the original,

3)  the right to distribute copies of the work,

4)  the right to publicly perform the work,

5)  the right to publicly display the work

If you hold the copyright in and to a work, then you have the exclusive right to do these 5 things with your work, or to authorize others to do the same.


There is a common misconception that registration of a work with the US Copyright Office is what establishes copyright.  In fact, many misinformed songwriters call this registration process, “copyrighting” a work.   However, registration of your copyright is simply a way to document the work and your authorship of the work with the Library of Congress.  It does not establish copyright.

Under the current Copyright Law, a work is automatically protected by copyright from the moment it is created.  It is considered to be created at the time it is “fixed” in a tangible form (i.e. chords and lyrics hand-written on a piece of paper or a voice recording of the song on your iPhone would both be considered “fixed”).   In other words, as soon as you document the song in a tangible form, then the work is protected.  There is no need to publish the work, nor register it with the US Copyright Office, for the work to be protected.  And you may immediately attach a notice of copyright to inform others that the copyright belongs to you.


When someone wishes to use a musical compositions in one of the 5 ways listed above (i.e. reproduce copies, prepare  derivative works, distribute copies, publicly perform or publicly display), then they must obtain permission from the work’s copyright owner.  The copyright owner, negotiates and issues a license for such use of his/her song.  Although there are some standard industry rates and practices, in most cases, the copyright owner can actually say “yes” or “no” to any use and can charge whatever fee he or she may desire to get for such use.  There are exceptions to this rule (primarily with regard to audio recordings after the first use), which is outlined below.

The 4 most common types of licenses include:

  • Mechanical License –  for audio recordings.   The royalty rate is set by law for such uses and permission cannot be denied, except for the very first recording of the song.  However, if the user does not follow specific guidelines in obtaining such permission, permission may be denied or a greater fee may be charged.
  • Print License – for any type of printed music or lyric (physical or digital).   Permission may be granted or denied by the copyright owner at will.  Royalty rates and fees are set by each individual copyright owner, although there are standard industry practices.
  • Synchronization License – for synchronizing a music composition with visual images (i.e. film, video, television, multi-media, etc.)   Permission may be granted or denied by the copyright owner at will.  Royalty rates and fees are negotiated between licensee and each individual copyright owner.
  • Performance License – for public performance of a song (i.e. live performance, radio broadcast, television broadcast, digital streams, etc.)   Copyright owners most often use a licensing agent such as ASCAP, BMI or SESAC (performing rights societies) to represent this right and to license / collect fees for the copyright owner.  Performing Rights Organizations seek to license all radio and television networks, digital and satellite networks, internet broadcasters and live venues such as hotels, bars, concert halls, etc. on behalf of the copyright owner.

For more detailed information on Copyright, see this circular from the Library of Congress.

What’s A Music Publisher?

In today’s music industry, the music publisher (or music publishing company) is responsible for managing, protecting, and exploiting song copyrights, in an effort to generate maximum royalty revenue for each composition.   By way of a publishing contract,  a songwriter  “assigns” the copyright in and to their composition(s), to a publishing company.  In return, the publishing company finds royalty generating opportunities for the songs, negotiates and issues licenses for such uses world-wide, collects royalties from those uses, and distributes royalties to the songwriter.  It’s to the benefit of a professional songwriter to engage a music publisher to work on his behalf, unless the writer is confident he can do all of these duties himself.

Professional songwriters usually have a relationship with a publishing company defined by a publishing contract.  These contracts can cover a specific group of existing songs, songs that will be written by the songwriter going forward, or both.  With regard to songs that have not yet been written, most publishing contracts define a period of time in which a songwriter will be “exclusive” to the publisher.  This means that each and every song written by the songwriter during the term of the contract, will be published by the music publisher.  Songs signed under contract by a music publisher will generally be  published for the life of the copyright in each song, giving the publisher ongoing financial incentive to secure the type of uses that can generate significant long-term revenue for each song and increase song popularity, thus producing further uses down the road.  Publishers often provide the exclusive songwriter with substantial advances against future income, to encourage the songwriter to commit a majority of his time to writing songs, rather than to working other jobs.  In return for all of its responsibilities, the publishing company receives a percentage of the royalty income generated from the songs, which is typically 50%, but can vary for different kinds of royalties.

A common misconception today among the general public is that a music publisher’s job is simply to print music.  This is because the term “music publisher”, originated with publishers of sheet music, as printed music was the primary commercial use of musical compositions in the late 19th century.  Since that time however, a variety of commercial opportunities have emerged, generating dozens of income types for song copyrights – from the advent of recordings, radio, television, film/video, gaming and digital technology.  Therefore, today companies known as “music publishers” are primarily in the business of exploiting and licensing song copyrights to third parties who use the songs commercially.  They are usually no longer in the business of actually producing printed music themselves.  Instead, they license their songs to “print music publishers” who specialize in the business of creating sheet music, songbooks, band music, choral works, etc.

The copyrights owned and administered by publishing companies are one of the most important forms of intellectual property in the music industry, and can be quite lucrative simply because a single song may be recorded, printed, performed and used in many different ways, by many different artists, over many decades, generating royalties at every turn.  Publishing companies play a central role in managing this vital asset.

Types of Song Royalties:

There are several types of royalties for the use of song copyrights, some of which we’ve touched on in previous posts: mechanical royalties derive from the sale of recorded music, such as CDs or digital downloads. These royalties are paid to publishers by record companies (or through their agencies or administrators such as the Harry Fox Agency).  Performance royalties are collected by performing rights organizations such as SESAC, BMI, ASCAP or PRS and are paid by radio stations, television networks, hotels, bars and others who broadcast recorded music.  Synchronization royalties are required when a composition is used in timed-relation with visual images, such as television shows, videos or films.  In Christian music, songs used by churches or ministry organizations in various forms like recordings, printed music, power-point files, videos and more, are often collected by Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI).  Publishers negotiate contracts with specific licensing/collection agents or issue direct licenses for all of these types of uses.  They also negotiate contracts with international sub-publishers to license and collect royalties in countries outside of their immediate territory.   All of these royalties, except for possibly domestic performing rights royalties, typically pass through the hands of the music publisher before they reach the songwriter.

Publishers also work to link up new songs by songwriters with suitable recording artists to record them and they place writers’ songs in other media such as movie soundtracks, commercials and video games.  They “pitch” songs to print publishers and promote songs directly to churches for use in worship services.  Publishers also typically handle copyright registration and ownership matters for the composer.

Performing Rights Organizations

Performing Rights Organizations, often referred to as PROs, are helpful organizations for the songwriter. ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are the three performing rights organizations in the US.  These organizations act as agents for the purpose of licensing “performing rights” on behalf of songwriters and publishers.  One of the rights granted a copyright owner, under US copyright law, is the right to perform a song publicly.  This right covers not only live performances of a song, but playing a recorded version of a song publicly, as well.

The performing rights organizations issue licenses and collect fees from radio stations, television networks, hotels, nightclubs, concert venues, arenas, skating rinks, ball parks, restaurants, coffee houses, internet companies, airlines and other outlets where music is performed either live or recorded.

The PROs are voluntary associations, and songwriters and music publishers have no obligation to join.  However, it is to their advantage to do so and have their songs licensed by one of these three organizations.  It would be an extremely difficult task for the individual songwriter or publisher to negotiate licenses and collect royalties with the thousands of companies and venues that perform music regularly.  And it would be just as daunting a task for a single radio station, for example, to contact each individual publisher or songwriter to negotiate a license and pay royalties for airplay of their songs.  Having a central clearing house for hundreds of thousands of songs, is no doubt advantageous to everyone involved.

Songwriters can link here to learn more about ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, including how to join.