Copyright (not the right to copy…)

I’ve received several emails with questions regarding copyrights. As it’s an important subject, I will expose, here, the sordid details on the matter.

Why protect your songs even if you’re just playing them in your basement?

History lesson. Gutenberg is known for having invented the printing press. What is less known is that, two days later, two more printing presses were invented. Two weeks later, at least a dozen were invented. They all worked on the same basic principles, but had been developed independently without the inventors even knowing that somebody else was working at the same invention. Bell invented the telephone. Actually, he’s credited for this invention because he registered his patent a couple of hours before somebody else (sorry, but I forget his name) who had come up with the same invention. What it all means is that both the printing press and the telephone were ideas whose time had come.

Now, and some people will disagree with this, Art is a branch of Science. The difference is that there are no specific rules, it’s more complicated to grasp. But any society evolving without either art or science can’t go very far.

A great example of this is the year 1969. In the UK, bands were working independently to come up with a new style of music. The Beatles revolutionized the music scene with Sergent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Moody Blues were original, but still hadn’t come up with the next revolution. Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator, Procul Harum were all working towards a new style of music, but none of them were able to fully make it. Then King Crimson came out with the revolution. All these bands followed and Progressive Rock was born. Listen to Pink Floyd, Genesis or Yes in 1969 and 1970, you’ll denote a huge difference in their styles.

As I’ve told you before, as David Hodge has told you, there’s only a limited amount of notes and chords. Nothing you can think of has never been done.

So, maybe this song you just wrote will be written by somebody else tomorrow. I’ve seen it happen to myself. A song I never protected came out a couple of years later by somebody else. The lyrics are different, but tell a very similar story (the melody is appropriate for this theme, so it’s not very surprising). Musically, it’s almost identical. Enough so that if I recorded it, I would be sued., even though I did write it before they did. I would also lose because I didn’t protect the song at the time and cannot prove that I wrote it first.

Of course, even if I had protected it, I could not sue them either, because there is no way they could have heard my song as I never performed it for anyone.

Some people steal songs

It’s unfortunate, but some people are dishonest. Others will steal a song without realizing it. Take the case on one George Harrison. On his first solo album was a song that’s become a classic: My Sweet Lord. However, that song was plagiarized from a sixties song called He’s So Fine. In court, Harrison admitted to stealing it, but without realizing he did it. I won’t go in to the details of the case as it’s still not wholly resolved and it’s very long, but you can read the details here (My Sweet Lord Legal Controversy). So if an ex-Beatle can do it, anyone can.

Not convinced? Vanilla Ice had a big hit a few years ago (not being a fan, I neither remember nor care about the title). Suffice it to say that the instrumental section, which was repeated several times, was directly taken from David Bowie and Queen’s Under Pressure. That one was a lot of fun considering that Vanilla Ice, David Bowie and Queen were all on the same record label…

Suppose you’re playing in a band and you come up with a great song, reminiscent of an ex-girlfriend’s charms: “Rosemarie’s Sillicon Valley”. The band, as a whole, works out the arrangements. Two years later, the band has split up and Jimbo, the bass player, is now playing with “The Fabulous Golden Curves”. They signed up with a major recording label and you turn on the radio to hear them play “Rosie’s Silly Cone Valley”. Of course, that’s your song. It’s number one in the charts and making a lot of money. Obviously you want to sue. First, though, you call up Jimbo and remind him of who wrote the song. Jimbo answers that he had the original idea and that the band reworked it. Then he reworked it some more, enough to call it his own. He might be telling the truth as far as he remembers it. Or he could be lying. Doesn’t matter, it’s still plagiarism. It’s your song, the fame and money from it should be yours. You can’t sue if you can’t prove you wrote it. A judge won’t take your word for it. Especially if the other guy’s backed by a major recording label.

And if you start making a lot of noise without concrete proof, you can kiss any hope of a career good-bye. You’ll be labeled a troublemaker and no one will ever want to sign you after that.

The basics

Different countries have different copyright laws, but essentially the basics are the same. (Except for Canada where the copyright law pre-dates the discovery of the country… Seriously though, it pre-dates the Stone Age.) Your first step when you write a song is to protect it the instant it is written. That means write it down on paper: Words and chords if you don’t read music. If you’re using any unusual chords or using a chord differently than it’s standard notation, write that down at the beginning. For example: Em: X02104. On the bottom, write down the international standard copyright symbol © (Alt-0169) on a PC), followed by your name, the year and your address. Make a copy and mail it to yourself. When you receive it in the mail, file it away. A good idea is to rent a safe deposit box in a bank. If your house burns down, your songs will still be protected.

Never ever open that envelope. Let the judge open it in a plagiarism suit. The moment the seal is opened, your protection is gone.

To protect it even more (and you can do this the first time around), play and sing your song into a tape recorder. Mail the cassette to yourself. However, make sure to include the paper version as cassettes can become de-magnetized over a period of time. If you have a CD burner at home, put the song on a CD instead. It gets expensive, but it’s absolutely necessary.

Never ever open that envelope

Never put more than one song per envelope. Through your career, you may have to sue more than once (unlikely, but it may happen). Or you may get sued more than once. If you have five songs on a cassette in a sealed envelope and you have to sue for one of them, once a judge opens the envelope that’s it for the other four songs. As they’re not part of the case, the judge won’t take the time to listen to them. If you ever have to sue for any of the other songs on that tape, you have no more protection.

Always remember that it’s better to be paranoid about copyrights rather than to take them lightly.

Who’s the actual songwriter?

When writing with other people or bringing songs into a band context, there are several ways of sharing the credit.

Usually, credits are split 50-50 between music and lyrics. If you compose the music by yourself, but write the lyrics with someone else, you should get 75% of the credit of the song (50% for the music and 25% for the lyrics). The best thing to do is to come to an understanding before you write the songs. It’s not always possible, but it can cause a lot of problems in the long run if you don’t. I’ve seen the case of a band on the verge of signing a record deal. The guitarist was solely credited for the prominent track on the album although the lyrics and part of the music had been redone by the singer. During the negotiations stage, the guitarist “lent” the song to another rising singer. This caused such a feud between the guitarist and the singer that the band broke up instead of signing a contract. It wasn’t too smart of the guitarist to do this, if you ask me. But that situation could have been avoided from the start.

In another case, lyricist Pete Sinfield complained, a few years ago, that Emerson, Lake & Palmer had taken advantage of him in the seventies. His complaint was to the effect that he only received 25% of the royalties for the songs he had written for them. Well, he didn’t write the music on any of the songs and co-wrote his lyrics with Greg Lake. He had signed a contract upfront agreeing to these terms. He was payed his dues. Don’t know what he was complaining about, particularly considering the fact that he wrote with them for six years…

You can always come to other agreements, as long as everyone is happy. If you look at most of the Beatles songs, you’ll see “written by Lennon-McCartney”. The truth is that they co-wrote only about five percent of those songs. Lennon wrote about 15% by himself and McCartney wrote all the others by himself. They had agreed, from the start, to put both there names on all of their songs regardless of who wrote them in order to simplify matters and to put the good of the band ahead of everything else. It worked fine for them, they never had any disagreements over this.

On Yes’ Relayer album, the song Gates of Delirium was entirely written by Jon Anderson. The arrangements were from everyone in the band and it was credited to the band rather than Anderson. This was through mutual consent.

In other cases however, it’s not as clear cut. The particular country involved might have specifics in its copyright law that you should know about. I remember an interview in the early or mid-80’s with Eric Bloom, singer for Blue Oyster Cult. He was saying that the whole credit thing was out-of-hand. If your song said, for example, “into the night sky” and the producer strongly urged you to say “in the dark sky”, you had to give him a songwriting credit if you did change that one word, therefore share the royalties with him. If you look at the credits on most of Blue Oyster Cult’s albums, you’ll find the producer’s name is often there.


The first thing you want to do is familiarize yourself with your country’s copyright law. You don’t need to study it for hours or learn it by heart, just get the gist of it. Then you’ll want to look up other organizations that are in place to help songwriters. Following, you’ll find a series of links which Paul will also add to the links section of this site. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list. If you find any more sights, please email them to Paul who’ll gladly add them.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to email me.

I do not vouch for any of the following sites, except for SOCAN. Use these as starting points only.