How Does Music Copyright Work?

We received a question about our Catholic Song Contest entry form, because it has a field for “Copyright.” The entrant was a little confused because he, himself, was the copyright owner and didn’t know what to put there. We added that field primarily to add a date, but it is an optional field. This confusion led me to think that this would be a good time to explain a little bit about how copyright works.

NOTE: This is not written by an attorney and should not be considered as legal advice. Any of these points made below about copyright laws in the United States should be investigated further in more detail.

Fixed in a Tangible Form

As soon as you have your music “fixed in a tangible” form, then it is technically copyrighted. This was passed into law in the Copyright Law of 1976. What this means is that if you have a recording of your music with proof of the date (most digital files are time-stamped) or sheet music of the melody then your song is copyrighted.

Form PA

In some cases, it might be hard to prove that you had a piece of music copyrighted before someone else. For added protection, you might want to register one or more works with the Office of Copyrights’ Form PA.

This will have your song registered with the U.S. Library of Congress. There is a filing fee, so sometimes it makes more sense to submit multiple songs at once. It can get expensive. For more information please see:

Your Rights

If you own the copyright to your song, you have the right to perform it, record it, sell copies, and/or license it to other people.

In a future post we will talk about Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) and music publishing which will discuss more about authorship, publishing, and licensing.

How Long Does it Last?

A copyright lasts until 70 years after the death of the author. If it is co-written, it is 70 years after the death of the author who dies last.

The laws are a little different for songs that are copyrighted by a corporation (i.e. not private individual). In this case the copyright lasts 95 years from its first publication or for 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.

Fair Use, Parody, and Infringement

These videos are good and might be helpful to you.

Song vs Sound Recording

There is a legal distinction between the copyright of a song (i.e. the structure, lyrics, and melody) and the sound recording of that song. Even though, again, the sound recording is technically copyrighted when it is in a tangible form, for added protection you can submit Form SR to the Office of Copyrights.

If you are concerned that people are going to sample your music within their own recordings, it might be an especially good idea to submit Form SR.

If you have a song named “Amazing Grace,” and then someone else writes a song titled “Amazing Grace,” you can not legally claim that your copyright has been infringed.

The copyright for your song does not include a chord progression. You can re-use any chord progression you like without worrying that you are infringing on someone else’s rights.

These laws and rules are fuzzy, and it is possible that someone else’s chord progression constitutes a distinctive element of someone else’s song, but in general, in jazz for example, the same chord progression is used in hundreds of different songs.

The copyright is for the lyrics and the melody. Don’t use someone else’s lyrics and melody in your song.

To learn more about copyrighting your music, here are a series of articles that might be helpful to you.

Music Law 101: What Does Copyright Law Protect?

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