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 Synch License?

Anytime music is “synchronized” in timed relation with visual images, a synchronization license is needed (often called a synch license, for short).  Synch uses may include film, television, DVD, home video, websites, multi-media presentations and the like, and may also extend to some types of live performance uses.  If music is being synchronized with visual images in any way, then the producer of the audio-visual project must first obtain the proper approval (license) to do so from the copyright holder of the composition, and also from the copyright holder of any master recording that is being used.

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