Publishing copyrights

Published on January 14th, 2010 | by Hugh Hession


How do I copyright my songs?

Many songwriter’s don’t know that that when you write a song and make a tangible copy of it (write it down, record it, etc.), it is automatically copyrighted. However, proving that you wrote the song, is something different all together.

To prove it, you need to register it through the U.S. Copyright Office (note that I am referring primarily to the United States here. Different laws pertain to copyrights in other countries).

A copyright gives you a “limited duration monopoly,” as copyright law puts it. This means that you have full control of the copyright for a duration which spans all the way to you death, plus an additional 70 years after (provided the copyright was registered on or after 1978).

You can’t copyright ideas

An important aspect to know is that you cannot copyright ideas. Your ideas need to come out of your head and on to some type of fixed form…even if it is a piece of paper with lyrics and chords. Then, it is called a work.

How can I register

There are three ways you can register your works with the United States Copyright Office.

1) Online. Online is the cheapest method, at $35 a pop. You can pay by debit, credit, or by electronic check. You will have to mail copies of your recording, lyrics/chart or whatever you select as tangible. Directions are online.

2) Fill-in “CO” form. The CO is an Adobe formatted, fill-in, printable form that you fill out with the appropriate information and mail in. The cost is $50.

3) Paper form registration. This is the old method of registering a copyright.  Why you even need to go this route, is beyond me, as the CO form takes place of all the older forms like TX, PA, VA, SR and the like. $65.

You also have the option to preregister your work online. This does not require you to send the work in tangible form like an actual copyright. The current cost is $115. Note that this is not an actual copyright but merely a way to prove authorship and only given when the work is in the process “of being prepared for commercial distribution or digital format.”

What is the difference between a PA and SR copyright?

The Performing Arts copyright (PA) covers your musical work – basically, the song you wrote.

The Sound Recording copyright (SR) covers the entire sound recording, such as a CD or a demo recording.

Check out our Sideshare presentation on the differences between the PA and SR.

Which one do you use?

If you are the writer of the song and the owner of the sound recording (meaning that you have a recording), then go with SR. There are checkboxes on Form CO that let you choose what you are submitting. If you just want to copyright the song itself, then check off PA.

Registering as a compilation

You can register your works as compilations. Just indicate a name for the compilation, (for example: JZ Recordings 2008), Make sure that you choose a name that will help you remember/identify what it is. This will save you money!

Never transfer full ownership of your copyright

Granted, I’m overlapping into publishing, but nevertheless, I feel this is a very important aspect regarding your copyrights. NEVER, and I mean, NEVER sign over 100% of your copyright to anyone. There is a lot of talk going on these days about 360 deals. These are deals being made where record and production companies are taking a percentage of all income sources from their artists. Granted, there are many forms of these deals, but typically they only take a percentage of your publishing royalties – NOT ENTIRE OWNERSHIP RIGHTS!

Understand that I’m not referring to your share of the royalties or transferring what is called “publishing rights” to a publisher to push your songs. When signing to a publisher, it is common to share the copyright through a transfer, but never the entire copyright.

Transferring 100% rights = no residual income = getting screwed. Need I say more?

Fortunately, Copyright law does give you a way to get back your rights, if you messed up; but you will have to wait 35 years to do so. And did I mention to not give up complete ownership of your copyrights?

What rights do you get as a copyright holder?

These are your legal, exclusive rights as a copyright holder. You can:

  1. Reproduce the work. Others need to get approval to record, publish, copy or anything else related to the reproduction of your song.
  2. Distribute copies of the work. Other’s can’t do it, without your approval.
  3. Perform your work, publicly. You control all rights regarding who performs your song publicly.
  4. Make a derivative work. You have the right to make and authorize derivative works. These are works that are based upon an original song you wrote. Parody and rap songs often use derivative works (especially a popular chorus to a particular song). If it derivative work is to be based upon your song, then only you can give permission for someone to do so.

Note: As with most “rules” there are always exceptions. With copyrights, these exceptions are called “Compulsory Licenses.” These are licenses that you are required to issue. Check this vid out on compulsory licenses by attorney Jeff Brabec on

Records searchable online

The Copyright Office gives you the ability to search all records after 1978, online. Give it some time if you don’t see your name in their database right away. The U.S. Copyright Office is notoriously slow in registering works, however once you submit your registration, you’re good to go.

If you have any questions or comments regarding copyrights, feel free to contact me!


About the Author

owns and operates Emerging Artists Entertainment Marketing & Consulting, LLC - a company devoted to cultivating aspiring music artists, He is also the head of Hession Entertainment Group, LLC (artist management) and the Music Industry Liaison for the artist discovery site, TalentWatch ( He has over 25 years experience in the music business as a performer, composer, producer and artist manager. Hugh holds a BA in Marketing and is a professional member of NARIP and a voting member of The Recording Academy. He often speaks at seminars and workshops on artist development.

4 Responses to How do I copyright my songs?

  1. cyber law says:

    I am always searching online for tips that can help me. Thank you!

  2. Dede Meche says:

    Hugh, this is a great article and I greatly appreciate the information! Have you ever heard of doing a “poor man’s copyright”? According to this source, it’s basically mailing a copy to yourself and NOT opening the mailed copy. If this is an option, what are the pros and cons of it?

    • Hugh Hession says:

      Hello Dede-
      Thanks so much! Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. It’s been a busy 2014 with my management company, but hope to get back on board with this site come 2015!

      In the United States, the biggest disadvantage of the poor man’s copyright, is that it will not hold up legally if infringement occurs, simply because you cannot sue or collect damages for an unregistered work. It’s quite cut and dry in that respect. The Federal courts will deny your claim. 17 US Code § 411. Also, if you decide to file for registration after 5 years of the creation of the work, a judge does not have to recognize the validity of the registration.

      Obviously, the the poor man’s copyright is going to be cheaper, but honestly, copyright registration in the United States is only $35 online. You can create a compilation (for example, an entire album or EP) for that same price if all the writers are the same on each song. That’s pretty cheap to prove copyright ownership!

      I know the laws are different in other countries and the poor man’s copyright may hold in some courts overseas.


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