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When it comes to intellectual property, things can get confusing quickly. If you're getting ready to release some new music, it's a good idea to have an understanding of what you're getting into in terms of protecting your work.

Here are 23 common questions about copyright, what it is, and how to protect your work.

Note: This article contains affiliate links where the author may receive a commission.

1. What is copyright and what does it protect?

Copyright is a form of protection for original, tangible works of authorship. It covers work that is both published or unpublished.

Copyright protects original works of authorship, including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as the following:

  • Literary works
  • Music and lyrics
  • Dramatic works and music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Photographs, graphics, paintings and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Video games and computer software
  • Audio recordings
  • Architectural works

Copyright law gives an author or owner of a work the exclusive rights to:

  • Reproduce (copy) or distribute the original work to the public (e.g., create and sell copies of a song.)
  • Create new works based upon the original work (e.g., release a "greatest hits" album.)
  • Perform or display the work publicly (e.g., perform a concert.)

In the music industry, things can get a bit more complicated. For example, ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and SoundExchange exist to regulate public and limited digital performances of music. Because these organizations exist, digital music services can use recorded music and bands can perform cover versions of songs without directly obtaining permission from the copyright owner.

The exact details of how these things work is beyond the scope of this article, but just know that musicians and songwriters are still paid for their work.

2. Copyright vs. trademark vs. patent - What's the difference?

A copyright covers original works of authorship, such as a book, song, or movie.

A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs made to identify a distinguishable source of a good or service.

A patent protects unique inventions and discoveries.

You can attempt to copyright, patent, or trademark something on your own, but to avoid costly mistakes, I'd recommend you consult an intellectual property attorney or use an online service like LegalZoom rather than going DIY.

3. When is something copyrighted?

Technically, in order to copyright something, assuming it's your original work, it just needs to be made into a tangible form. However, registering your works with the U.S. Copyright Office (either yourself or through a service like LegalZoom) provides you with enforceable protection against those who may try to infringe upon your creation. Without a registered copyright, you cannot access the courts to enforce it.

4. How do I copyright something?

The cheapest way to copyright something is to register it online, which you can do here.

You can also register your copyright by mail by filling out this form to have the U.S. Copyright Office forms sent to you.

Note that it's cheaper to register your copyright online.

You can also have an intellectual property attorney register your copyright for you or complete the registration with LegalZoom to avoid costly mistakes.

5. How much does it cost to register a copyright?

For basic registration, the fees are as follows:

  • Online registration:

    • $35 Single Application (single author, same claimant, one work, not for hire)
    • $55 Standard Application (all other filings)
  • Paper registration:

    • $85 Paper filing on Form TX, Form VA, Form PA, Form SE, and Form SR

You can see the full list of fees here.

6. Can I copyright multiple things in one application?

Yes, if the multiple items are considered a collection.

Collections may only be protected through a single copyright application if every work in the collection is in the same type of medium. All of the works have the same owner, and at least one of the authors has contributed to every one of the works. The collection must also contain works that have all been published, or the entire collection remains unpublished.

An album of songs with one owner where a single songwriter has contributed to every song is an example of a collection.

You can register unpublished works as a collection on one application with one title for the entire collection.

Published works may only be registered as a collection if they were actually first published as a collection.

7. When is a work considered published?

A work is considered to be published when the author or owner makes it available to the public on a non-restricted basis.

It is possible to distribute or display a work without necessarily publishing it. For example, if a musician distributes a new song to five bloggers under a non-exclusive license restricting the bloggers right to disclose the contents of the song, the song remains unpublished. An example of publishing a song would be to openly distribute it to music stores.

8. How long does a copyright last?

  • A work is in public domain if it was published in the United States before 1923.
  • Works published between 1922 and 1978 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication.
  • As a general rule, if the work was created (but not published) before 1978, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.
  • For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright lasts for 95 years from the year of its first publication or 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.

9. Can I renew a copyright?

It's unlikely. You can't renew works created on or after January 1, 1978, but for works published or registered prior to January 1, 1978, renewal registration is optional after 28 years.

10. Can a copyright be transferred?

Yes.

Transfers are normally made via contracts because the U.S. Copyright Office doesn't have forms for transfers.

The Copyright Office does, however, record transfers of copyrights. This is not required for a valid transfer, but it can provide certain legal advantages and is also required in order to validate a transfer against a third party.

11. Can I use a stage name to register my copyright?

You can use a stage name. Just check the “Pseudonymous” box when giving information about the authors in your registration.

12. Will my personal information be available to the public if I register a copyright?

Yes. The Copyright Office maintains records of copyright registrations and makes them available for public inspection.

13. How long does it take for something to get copyrighted?

For online registration, about 90 days.

For hard-copy registrations, the average processing time is 10 months.

14. Do I need to register my work with the Copyright Office in order for it to be protected?

If you want enforceable protection from the courts, then yes, you need to register your works with the Copyright Office, which you can do yourself online or through a service like LegalZoom to avoid costly mistakes.

15. Does my work have to be published before I can copyright it?

No. You can copyright unpublished works. It just needs to be in a tangible form. So, you can't copyright a song you sang in the shower, you need to write it down or record it.

16. Why should I register a copyright if it's already protected?

Your work is considered copyrighted under U.S. law once it's made into a tangible form, but registering it with the Copyright Office provides legal benefits such as access to the courts to actually enforce protection, and some level of international copyright protection.

17. Can I use someone else's song without their permission? Can someone use my song without my permission?

The legal use of music is more complicated than it is for other forms of intellectual property. Many uses of your music, such as public performances of your music and the use of it on non-interactive digital streaming services, are available to third parties through license agreements with BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, and SoundExchange.

However, to create a remix or cover version of a song, you need permission from the owner of the rights to the original music or sound recording.

18. What can I do if someone else is using my work without my permission?

If your work is registered with the Copyright Office, and a third party is liable for copyright infringement, you can sue them. To do this, you'll need to hire an attorney.

Keep in mind that limited use of your work may be acceptable under fare use laws.

19. How do I copyright something for free?

Technically, once your work is made into a tangible form, it is copyrighted.

However, without registering your works with the U.S. Copyright Office, you cannot access the courts to enforce it.

The only place you can officially register a copyright in the United States is the U.S. Copyright Office, which means you must pay the applicable fees.

The cheapest way is to do this yourself on their website, but consulting an attorney or using a service like LegalZoom can save you from costly mistakes, and save time.

20. What is poor man's copyright?

The idea behind poor mans copyright is that if you mail yourself a copy of your work and leave it unopened, the official federal date can be used to enforce copyright infringement protection.

This is a nice idea, but it doesn't work.

In order to have access to the courts, you need to register your work with the Copyright Office, which you can do yourself online at copyright.gov, with the help of an attorney, or through a service like LegalZoom.

21. How can I get an international copyright?

There's no such thing as an international copyright that will automatically protect your work around the world. However, registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office (on your own or with a service like LegalZoom) will offer you some level of protection in a large number of countries.

You can find more information about international copyright protection here.

22. Who owns the copyright?

Generally, the copyright owner is one of the following:

  • The author/creator
  • The author/creator’s heirs if the creator is dead (living family).
  • Creators of a joint work automatically share copyright ownership unless there is a contrary agreement. (For example, if a band writes a song together, they share the copyright.)
  • Anyone to whom the author/creator has given or assigned his or her copyright (for example, a publisher or record company if the copyrighted work is given in exchange for a publishing or recording contract). Usually this means that the author/creator has given up his or her own copyright in the work.

For music, things can get a bit more complicated. A sound recording may be owned by the songwriter, the performer, the producer, a record label, a publisher, or a combination of these.

23. When does a copyright start?

Copyright status is automatic upon creation of an original work in a tangible form.

Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is not necessary for copyright status, though registration is needed in order to pursue an infringement claim in court.

You can register a copyright yourself online at copyright.gov, with the help of an attorney, or through a service like LegalZoom.



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