Frequently Asked Questions About Copyrighting Songs; Answers By Gary Roth of BMI
When do I get a ‘copyright’ on a song?
When you create it and memorialize it onto a tangible object, such as onto a CD, tape or paper. The law has only two requirements to get a copyright: creation and ‘fixation’ in a tangible medium of expression.
If that’s the case, why should I bother registering the songs with the Copyright Office?
Because registering will put the world on notice as to who is the owner of the songs (in case someone wants to use the song and needs to contact you) and allows you to sue for infringement.
$30 a song is too expensive for me; I have a lot of songs to register. Isn’t there any cheaper way to do it?
Yes, if they are unpublished. You can combine them into a folio with a single title and register the folio for $30. But the individual song titles won’t be indexed. For that you need to spend another $100 and file a CA form to list all the titles. So you can do an unlimited number of registrations for $130.
Can’t I protect myself from someone stealing my songs by mailing a lead sheet or CD of them to myself by certified mail?
Because your copyright attaches at the moment you created and fixated your song, you get no better legal protection by mailing a copy to yourself.
If I get hired to write a song, do I still own the copyright in it once I create it?
It depends on whether a) you are an employee of the person or company that hired you to write it, or b) whether it is part of an audio/visual work, a contribution to a collection, a supplementary work or part of a compilation and you and the hiring party agree specifically that you have written it ‘for hire.’ In either of those cases, the employer, not you, owns the copyright from the time of your creation of the song. Otherwise, the work is not for hire and the copyright belongs to you unless you transfer it to the employer.
If a record producer wants to cut my songs and also asks me for the publishing and I say okay but we never sign anything, is he really the publisher of my songs?
Yes, but only until you tell him he isn’t anymore. The law requires a transfer of copyright rights (which includes publishing ‘ the right to reproduce) to be done in writing. An oral transfer is essentially just permission to exercise your rights until you decide to revoke it.
Is it true that I can decide who makes the first recording of my song?
Yes, the copyright owner has the right to decline all offers to make the first recording until he finds the person who he believes is the right one to do it. But once you permit person number one, you can’t reject anyone else’s cover recording.
Why not? It’s my song!
The law wants to encourage the dissemination of music. So it created a compulsory license that allows anyone the right to record a previously authorized recording as long as the record company pays the copyright owner royalties.
How much does it have to pay me if I own the copyright?
At the moment, 8.5 cents per song or 1.65 cents a minute, whichever is more, for each record that the record label makes and distributes. Next year the rate goes up to 9.1 cents or 1.75 cents a minute. The rate can be negotiated between the record company and the copyright owner, and often is, with these statutory rates as a maximum.
I write with a collaborator. Do we both own the copyright in our song?
Yes, if you intended to do so. If you began with the intent of one of you owning only the music and one of you owning only the lyrics, then you have separate copyrights in each. If you intended to merge your creations into a single song, you would be joint owners.
If we are joint owners, but we have a difference of opinion about what we do with the song, can one of us stop the other from licensing it or selling it?
No, if you are really joint owners, either one of you can exercise rights to the song without the consent of the other, as long as each receives his or her fair share of the proceeds. It’s like a joint bank account, where either owner can withdraw money without asking the other.
If my song is recorded, do the people who but my CDs get any interest in my copyright?
No, owning the material object on which a copyrighted work resides (the CD) gives the owner of the object no rights in the copyrighted work.
How long does my copyright last?
For 70 years after you die.
Even if I assign it to a publisher?
Yes. Although the assignment will give the publisher ownership of the copyright, the length of time that the publisher owns it is dependent upon how long you live.
What if I have a collaborator or two?
The 70 years starts running after the last one of you dies.
Do I have to write a copyright notice on the CDs I burn with my song on them?
No, but if you do, it needs to say Copyright (or ©), the year you first published it and your name.
What is that (P) notice I see on CDs?
That is the symbol for ‘phonorecord,’ which gives notice of the copyright in the sound recording, not the song. Many times the person who owns the song (the songwriter or publisher) is different from the person who owns the recording (the record label). So there are two copyright notices on the label, one for the song and one for the recording.
Why are there so many songs with the same title? Can’t the first person to think up the title stop all others from using it?
No, because you can’t copyright titles, only expressions. But if someone’s title becomes so well known that practically everybody who hears it would connect it to the same song (such as ‘Last Train to Clarksville”) the copyright owner could go to court and possibly stop anyone else from using it.
How come I can’t get performing right royalties without joining a PRO?
Because royalty payments to writers and publishers by ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are based upon a contract in which the writer agrees to give the PRO his or her licensing rights and the PRO agrees to pay royalties in exchange. There is nothing in the law that requires a PRO to pay money to a writer or publisher without first establishing a relationship on their terms. If a writer never joins a PRO, he would have to get his royalties on his own from those who perform his works.
Gary Roth is Assistant Vice President of Legal & Business Affairs, Performing Rights at BMI. For information about BMI, please Click Here.