Music Copyright Registration

Copyright Registration is a form of protection provided to the authors of published and unpublished “original works” which includes, songs, music, lyrics, literary, dramatic, artistic, and certain other intellectual works.  An owner of copyright will have the exclusive right to reproduce the copyrighted song or lyric, create derivatives or variations of that song or lyric and to distribute, perform and display it publicly.

Legally, songs may only be copied or performed publicly with the permission of authors.  The legal power to grant these permissions may be bought, sold or otherwise transferred.  These rights are governed by the U.S. copyright laws.  A music work and publishing royalties can be a substantial source of income, particularly if a song becomes a hit record.  When a music is composed, a property is created that can be exploited, by the writer or others, for profit.  Therefore, the rights to that property are subjects of legal maneuvering.  Whether a music work is composed alone, in collaboration with another writer, or as someone else’s employee, legal rights in the song are at risk.

United States copyright laws elaborate by granting copyright owners exclusive right to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords, prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work, and distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending, and Perform or display the copyrighted work publicly.  However, these rights are subject to various limitations.  Generally, the composer of music work is the author.  If two or more people collaborate in composing, the presumption of law is that all the writers contributed equally, and therefore own the music work and its copyright equally.  The ownership percentages can be well defined between co-composers.

The Copyright Act of 1976 provides that the copyright for songs created on or after January 1, 1978 lasts until the death of the songwriter, plus seventy years.  Thereafter, the work falls into public domain, with no copyright protection.  If the song was written by more than one collaborator, the term of the copyright would be the life of the last surviving writer, plus seventy years.  In the case of songs “made for hire”, the employer, not the songwriter, is presumed to be the author.  The copyright life of a music work for hire lasts the lesser of 95 years from the date of publication, or 120 years from the date of creation.  Characterization of a work as “made for hire” also determines the owner’s renewal and termination rights.  The duration of copyright for songs written after January 1, 1978, is generally the life of the songwriter plus 70 years.

Copyright protection exists for original works of authorship as soon as they become fixed in a tangible form of expression.  An original music work recorded on tape qualifies for copyright protection automatically.  Registration with the government is not mandatory.  The musical notations, transcriptions and a recording of the work mailed under a certificate to the composer with a return receipt stand as proof of the work’s copyright.  However, registration of a music work with the United States Copyright Office establishes a public record of the songwriter’s copyright claim, and gives access to federal courts for infringement actions.  It also shifts the burden of proof regarding the validity of copyright to the other side enabling the judge to award statutory damages, and recover the author’s attorney’s fees if the infringement suit is successful.

A music composer may terminate the transfer of copyright after 35 years with or without the publisher’s permission.  At that point, copyright ownership reverts back to the composer, who may keep it, or sell it to another publisher (even the original publisher), for the remainder of the copyright term, after which the song or songs will become part of public domain.  A copyright assignment can be terminated by the composer through a notice to the publisher.  Such termination notice should state the specific date of termination which may be anytime within 35 to 40 years after the original transfer, and must be sent between 2 and 10 years prior to the intended date of termination.  The author must also file a copy of the notice in the Copyright Office before the date of termination.


Inside Music Copyright Registration