Songwriting copyright for songwriters. Learn the basic principles of copyright and how to protect your songs.
You wrote a song, poured your heart and soul into it.
You know it’s good and you want to share it, but there are sharks and scammers out there.
Is it safe to share your song online where everyone and anyone can see and hear it?
Like many simple questions in songwriting, the answer isn’t yes or no. The answer is:
Let’s find out more about the principles involved so you can make an informed decision for yourself.
Legal Disclaimer: I’m a songwriter and songwriting teacher, not a lawyer. The legal principles of copyright are similar throughout the world, but some legal details change in different countries. You can learn more by exploring the links at the end of this article. Contact an entertainment lawyer in your jurisdiction for personalized advice specific to your situation.
Is It Safe to Post My Songs Online?
If you check google or songwriting FaceBook groups the first thing you’ll notice is that there’s always somebody with an opinion. Unfortunately, everyone is saying something different. Generally, it comes down to two opposite opinions: either:
1. It’s safe to share your song or
2. It’s not safe because somebody could steal your lyrics or song and make $€£$ from it.
It’s tough to know who to believe so let’s learn more to be fully informed…
What is Copyright?
Copyright is the right to control a work of art that you’ve created. You have the “right” to decide who can “copy” or reproduce your song by performing or recording it. A copyright can apply to a work of art, including: a song, a sound recording, a photograph, painting or a literary work, such as a novel, book, play, poem or article.
A copyright gives you, the creator and owner of a song, the right to decide how and when it can be reproduced, such as a live performance or as a recording. This includes “derivative works” which is an adaptation of significant parts of a song.
So, somebody can’t perform or record your song and significantly change it (such as changing some lyrics) without your written permission. With sound recordings, this is commonly applied to sampling, another person can’t take audio samples of your recording to create their own recording without your written permission.
A cover version of a song isn’t considered a derivative work because a change in style or arrangement doesn’t change the intent of the song (see What if Somebody Records My Song? below).
What Can I Copyright in My Song?
You can copyright the lyrics and melody of a song. It’s not possible to copyright: ideas, titles, chord progressions or the arrangement of a song.
Copyright law attempts to provide protection for the creator without stifling possibilities for others. The intent behind copyright law is to balance the needs of creators to profit from their art, with the needs of others to create their own art. If an idea could be copyrighted nobody could write a “love song” without the expressed written permission of the first person to copyright that idea.
How Do I Get a Songwriting Copyright?
Copyright starts as soon as you record your work in “tangible form.” For a song, this can be a lead sheet or written notation, or a sound recording, whether a demo on your phone or a professional recording.
Most simply: if a song can be communicated to someone else (other than simply playing it to them) then it’s in a tangible form. So if you’ve “written” (or recorded) a song it’s already copyrighted.
A work is copyrighted for the life of the author plus 70 years in the United Kingdom or the United States. In Canada, copyright continues for 50 years after the author’s death. A copyright passes to the author’s estate after death until it expires. While there are some exceptions, typically when a copyright expires the work goes into the public domain and anyone can use, record or create derivative works from it.
How to Register My Songwriting Copyright?
Although your work is copyrighted when you create it, you can also legally register your copyright. Until you’re planning to professionally record your songs there’s no practical reason (except fear) to formally register a copyright on your songs. Filing a copyright for your lyrics before the music is written is premature because you’ll need to copyright the (complete) song when it’s recorded and ready for release.
You file electronic paperwork and pay a fee to a copyright office in your country to register your song or a set of songs. There are online services that offer to copyright your songs, but you should do it yourself to ensure it’s done properly, even if they promise to do it less expensively.
The “poor man’s copyright,” mailing yourself a copy of your lyrics or song recording that you keep unopened to prove the date of creation, is an urban myth. The only way to properly register your copyright is through the copyright office in your country.
In most jurisdictions, you have to register your copyright before you can go to court for a copyright dispute. The registration process can take months, however you can safely release your music while your copyright registration is being processed.
How Much is My Song Worth?
A song potentially has monetary value only after it’s professionally recorded. Then a recording of your song can be sold, streamed, broadcast, or licensed for synchronization in a movie or television program.
If you record and release your song on iTunes, for example, you receive money each time someone purchases it for download. Each time your song is streamed on Spotify, or other streaming services, you receive a fraction of a penny from the streaming platform. When your song is played on the radio you receive royalties from your Professional Rights Organization for each time it’s broadcast. If your song is used in a movie or on television, you’re paid according to the terms of the agreement, called a synchronization license, negotiated between everyone involved in the recording.
In short, your song isn’t worth money until your song is making money. You can’t “sell” your lyrics because they aren’t worth anything yet. When your song is recorded and ready for release you protect yourself by properly registering your copyright for the song and recording.
How Do Songs Make Money?
Songs make money from music royalties, money generated when a song is performed live in public or broadcast. There are two types of royalties for any professionally recorded song: songwriting royalties, paid to the songwriter(s) and mechanical royalties, paid to the owner of the master recording (the recording artist or their record label).
Songwriting royalties are paid to the songwriter(s) from a Performing Rights Organization (P.R.O.) and split according to an agreement called a “Split Sheet,” a legal agreement to divide the songwriting royalties. The standard is an equal split for all songwriters, but it can be any split for each, as long as all songwriters agree to it.
For a detailed explanation of the complex world of music royalties you can read: Songwriting Royalties Explained.
What If Somebody Records My Song?
Congratulations, an artist loved your song enough to record it!
A songwriter, as the copyright owner, can choose who records a song first (right of first release). Once a song is released, anyone is allowed to record their own version of the song. They don’t need your permission to use it, however you receive any songwriting royalties generated by the song. The recording artist (or their record label) receives the mechanical royalties.
They only require your written permission if they wish to significantly change the lyrics or melody of the song, or if they want to create a “derivative work” by using audio samples of your recording in their recording. They don’t need permission to change how they play it as a cover version because that doesn’t change the meaning or intent of the song. For example, playing a reggae or country version of a rock song doesn’t change the meaning of the lyrics.
To legitimately record a cover song, the artist recording it (you if you’re recording someone else’s song, or an artist recording your song) needs to purchase a compulsory license through the songwriter’s P.R.O. or a company such as the Harry Fox Agency. Essentially the compulsory license is an agreement to pay the songwriter any songwriting royalties the recording generates.
What Happens When There’s a Songwriting Copyright Dispute?
Copyright infringement is the term for someone using all or part of your song as their own.
Proving copyright infringement is up to the copyright owner. So, if someone plagiarizes your work it’s up to you to take action.
Typically the first step is as an official letter to stop infringing (to “cease and desist”) and / or to pay songwriting royalties they’ve earned from the infringement. If they don’t, the next step is usually a lawsuit. Going to court is expensive, so it’s only practical when a song is extremely popular and is generating a great deal of money. If it’s not a major hit by a major artist the cost of going to court will be more than any damages awarded.
A copyright infringement lawsuit needs to prove:
1. “Access” – that the original song could likely have been heard
2. “Substantial Similarity” – that the plagiarizing song is close enough to the original to be considered “stealing.”
Recently there have been well publicized plagiarism lawsuits involving millions of dollars. Ed Sheeran successfully won several lawsuits, including one for “The Shape of You,” claiming he had intentionally borrowed from other songwriters. Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams were found guilty of copying the “feel” and “groove” of Marvin Gaye’s “Blurred Lines” but this was a contentious ruling because those elements of a song can’t be copyrighted.
Many industry professionals and publishers won’t listen to songs unless they already know the songwriter. This isn’t to block new songwriters. It’s in part to protect themselves from spurious lawsuits… if they haven’t heard your song then they didn’t have “access” to the song.
Summary: Can I Safely Share My Songs Online?
It’s extremely unlikely that anyone will “steal” your song if you post it online. In many ways, writing a song is the easier part of creating a professional quality recording necessary to make money in the music industry.
In my opinion, it’s improbable that somebody will go to the effort and expense to professionally record your lyrics or song so they could make money from it. It’s much more likely that you’ll willingly give personal information or money to a scammer than for a scammer to steal your song. When you post your song you don’t even have to include “© your name”… everyone who understands how things really work already knows you own the copyright.
Ultimately, it’s your judgment call… which do you believe is more likely:
1. that sharing your songs will help you and your songwriting, or
2. that someone might try to steal your song?
I believe you should strive to consistently create solid songs. Even though it’s unlikely, if someone actually “stole” your song, then it’s only one of your many songs. You’ll write better songs, don’t waste time and energy worrying about it.
When you’re ready to professionally record your songs, register your copyright for the songs and the sound recordings before you release them. If you’re only recording cover songs, purchase a compulsory license for each song and register your copyright for the recording. This will legally protect your work and ensure that you receive royalties for your music. Should someone try to illegally profit from your music or plagiarize your work you’ll be ready to
In the meantime, write the strongest songs you can, continue to improve, share the songs you’re proud of, and enjoy your songwriting journey!
For a detailed explanation of music royalties, the role of performing rights organizations and when you should join one, you can read: Songwriting Royalties Explained