The Top Ten FAQs On The Business Of Songwriting #9

by Mary Dawson

QUESTION 9: When and how do I copyright my lyrics and/or songs?

When I first began my journey as a songwriter, the word -- copyright -- was a term that was made up of equal parts mystery, awe and paranoia. On one hand, horror stories about "song stealing" and fortunes lost as the result made me realize the importance of insuring that my songs were protected by law. But on the other hand, the process of copyrighting appeared to be so bureaucratic and complicated that the thought of it was overwhelming! So, for quite a long time, I simply ignored the whole matter and hoped it would go away. It didn't -- so I finally had to face it. And if I had known then what I know now, I would have realized that the word copyright is kinda like eggplant. Although the word sounds pretty scary, but when you actually try ain't so bad after all!

The definition of copyright is very simple -- it is the exclusive right to copy, reproduce, publish and sell a literary, musical or artistic work. The good news is that you really don't have to do anything except write a song in order to be protected by the Copyright Law. Copyright goes into effect automatically the moment the expression of an original idea becomes fixed in a tangible form or medium -- such as written lyrics and/or transcribed notes on music paper and/or an audio recording.

The key word here is fixed. As long as your song is simply floating around in your head or just a melody you sing in the shower, it has not yet taken on a tangible form. It is obscure and hazy -- until you transcribe it on paper or on an audio recording of any kind. From the moment the ink is dry -- or the words and music are recorded on tape or CD -- the song is solely owned by the writer(s) of the song and is automatically protected by the Copyright Law for seventy years after the writer's death! In the case of two or more writers, copyright protection extends to seventy years after the death of the last surviving writer. The correct way to show such ownership is the word Copyright or the letter C in a circle -- © -- followed by the name(s) of the writer/owner(s) and the year the song was completed. This notice should appear on all your lyric sheets, lead sheets and demo recordings.

Most people in the Music Business understand common copyright law and will not try to steal songs from the writers. However, if you are exposing your songs to a wide variety of publishers and record companies, it is wise to also register your copyrights with the US Copyright Office in Washington, D.C. Since there is a government form to fill out and since there is a charge for each registration, songwriters frequently resort to what is called the "poor man's copyright." They mail a tape and/or written words and music to themselves in a sealed, postmarked envelope and then file the package unopened as proof of the originality and date of the composition. This may offer some authenticity and proof of your copyright ownership, but it is just as simple and far better to just go ahead and register the song(s) officially with the Copyright Office. And I'm going to show you how to do it cheaply -- so read on!

First, call the Copyright Office "forms hotline" in Washington and request several copies of the PA Copyright Form. "PA" stands for Performing Arts and is used for songs. For lyrics only, you can request a TX Form (for Text). The hotline phone number is 202-707-9100. You will get a recorded message instructing you as to how you can request the forms which will be sent to you free of charge. The form will include instructions that will lead you step-by-step in filling it out correctly. It is important to follow the instructions exactly. If you goof up, your registration form will be returned to you with a note from the Copyright Office explaining your error and you will have to re-submit. Forms may also be downloaded online from the US Copyright Office website at

For each PA Form submitted, there is a $30 registration fee required. If you only register one song at a time, this procedure can get very expensive -- especially if you are an obsessive-compulsive, prolific songwriter. However, there is a cheaper way! You can wait until you have several songs ready for registration and then register them as a "collection." The collection can contain any number of songs (my last submission had over 20) and it will still cost only $30 to register. I simply call my collections The Songs of Mary Dawson - Volume 1 (or Volume 2...or Volume 3...or whatever). You will need to send your completed PA form along with copies of the lyric and/or lead sheets for each song and/or a cassette or CD demo of the songs in the submission.

It takes several months for the registration procedure to be completed, but you will eventually receive your copy of the registered form in the mail. Be sure to file it in a safe place along with the titles of the song in that collection. If and when you decide to sign a songwriter's agreement with a publisher or record company, the copyright for the song(s) in the agreement will have to be re-registered to show transfer of ownership of the copyright to the publisher. However, it is a very simple procedure to re-register the song(s) and it will usually be the responsibility of the publisher you are dealing with.

If you are a singer/songwriter who decides to record an album of your own songs to sell at your concerts etc., you will need to also register the entire recording so that the album as a whole is also protected by copyright law. This requires an SR (stands for Sound Recording) form which is different from the PA form described above. The symbol for this copyright is the letter P (for Phonogram) in a circle. You will notice this symbol on the backs of commercial recordings and it should also appear on any albums you manufacture. If you need further information on this form -- or if you have any other questions relating to copyright -- you can actually get a human being at the Copyright Office by dialing: 202-707-5959.

If you can digest most of the above information, you will have a basic working knowledge of the matter of copyright. The Copyright Law -- like any legal statute -- is filled with intricacies and fine points that can only be understood by professionals who are specialists in that field. But you need not be intimidated nor overwhelmed by the concept. If you are faithful to mark your songs with the proper copyright notice and to regularly register your songs with the US Copyright Office, you can freely hoist your sails and cruise the seas of the Music Industry knowing that "the Law is on your side" and will protect your songs from Song Pirates.

See you next month for FAQ #8.

**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area.

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