Music Copyrights - Protect your Rights and Intellectual Property

A songwriter has a copyright the second he records his song or writes it down. However, in order to prove you created the composition it is important to register the music with the copyright office. This must be done by an accredited music or entertainment attorney.

A "PA" (Performing Arts) registration protects the song. An "SR" (Sound Recording) registration protects the recording. Typically on a commercially released album the label owns the SR copyright, while the writer or his publishing company owns the PA copyright. You could lose all of the rights to your music unless protected by a music attorney.


In addition to artist royalties a record company pays a publishing royalty ("mechanicals") for each record sold. The current statutory rate is 9.1¢ per song per album sold. If the writer is also the Artist this is considered a "controlled composition". Often an Artist will be asked to accept a lower rate for controlled compositions by the record company. This royalty is paid by the record company. A music attorney can get you the money you deserve.

The writer also receives a public performance royalty for every time it is performed (i.e., radio, nightclubs, etc). Every time your music is played on the radio you are entitled to performance license money. Each writer joins BMI or ASCAP which collects and distributes these royalties to their member writer/publishers. A music attorney will insure that you get paid accordingly.

What is a Copyright?

Under United Sates copyright law, a musical work is protected by law to the benefit of the authors once it has been "fixed in a tangible medium from which it may be reproduced". "Fixing" can be by writing down the words and music, recording it, embodying the song in a computer file. As long as it can be reproduced it is copyrighted. However, as with trademarks, without registering your copyright you have only common law protection. To get statutory protection you must register the song with the U.S. Copyright Office. This statutory protection will allow you to institute a copyright infringement suit in federal court. Registration of the song creates prima facie evidence that you are the owner unlike common law copyrights.

There are two kinds of copyrights. One is a PA copyright which protects the song itself. The other is a SR copyright which protects the recording (piracy). If the same person or persons own the song and the recording the Copyright office now allows you to register both rights on one form. In the example of a band that is signed to a publisher and a record company , the former usually owns the copyright to the song while the latter owns the copyright to the recording. Applications can be made online on the US Copyright Office website.

How Do Songwriters make money?

These days there are three basic ways a songwriter gets compensated. The first is by the sale of recordings of the song whether by downloads or physical sales. These are paid a fixed rate by the record company directly to the songwriter and are called Mechanical Royalties or "mechanicals".

Songwriters are also paid every time a song gets played on the radio. These are called Performance Royalties. They are collected by the songwriter's Performing Rights Society, typically either BMI, ASCAP or SESAC.

As a side note, the Artist and record label do not get compensated for over the air radio play in the USA. However, the Artist and Record Company do participate in internet and satellite play. Sound Exchange collects these royalties and is leading the fight against traditional radio stations to change the law to provide for payments to artists and record companies for over the air radio play.

The third major source of income for songwriters is from Licensing. Synchronization licenses cover the use of a song when it is used in relation to visual images such as tv shows, movies and commercials. It covers the use of the song itself whether recorded by the artist or rerecorded by studio musicians. (If the tv or movie producer wants to use the original recording he must obtain a separate Master Use License from the record company). Synch licenses are negotiated by the Publishing Company, or if there isn't one by the songwriter directly.

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