Copyright Protection – When and Why to Get It

I’m sure you have eagerly read my two previous columns on the subject of copyrights (Copyright, Not The Right To Copy, Copyrights Revisited)… Nevertheless, from the questions – and the answers – in the forum, it’s obvious that there are still some questions.

Remember, the moment you finish writing a song, you own the copyright. What we’ll be discussing is protection of this right.

Let’s look back at the methods of protecting your songs:

  • mailing yourself a copy of the song (also referred to as “poor man’s copyright”)
  • governmental registration
  • publication

First, I think it’s important to look at the reasons for protecting your songs in order to understand which level you need.

Scenario A

You’re sitting at home and you have a drawer filled with 50-odd songs. Nobody in the business knows you write songs (meaning you’ve never approached anyone in the business). You don’t play in a band or you play in a cover band, so you never bring your songs into the band.

What kind of protection do you need here?

Amazingly, none. If nobody knows you write songs, who will steal them from you? If you live in a shabby district, in a run-down house, who is going to even suspect that there’s 2 million dollars stuffed in your mattress? The same applies here. If you happen to hear one of your songs on the radio, it’s just coincidence. Nobody can steal your songs if they’ve never heard them.

Use poor man’s copyright method anyway. The reason? When you’ll need it you often won’t have the time to do it or, being an absent-minded artist or procrastinator, you’ll put it off and never do it. About this method, even if you read comments stating that this method is bogus because some guy has read of a case that was lost or even if a lawyer states in a forum that he would get that thrown out of court, it is still the method of choice recommended by agencies that protect songwriters (SOCAN, BMI, etc.). They will often recommend that you use registered mail, but it is not absolutely necessary, although it is a good choice.

Scenario B

You play in a band and bring in your original songs. Bands being what they are, it’s likely that the band, no matter how much you believe in it, won’t be together two years from now, so your songs might end up in a lot of different places.

Which method of protection should you use?

If you can afford it, government registration is best. This is the level where you’re most likely to have your songs stolen. When the band breaks up, someone else might take your song into another band and honestly not realize that he didn’t write the song.

Government registration implies a $35 fee. This may not sound like much, but for a starving artist it can mean the difference between eating this week and not eating this week. Make sure you at least use poor man’s method. If you do go for government registration, you only need to register the songs you’re bringing into the band, not your whole catalogue. Remember too, that you can copyright a group of songs for the price of one.

Scenario C

You’re sending demos out to record labels, producer, publishers, etc.

How should your songs be protected?

Surprisingly, none. If you’re sending your songs out to professionals, people with a proven track record, they won’t steal your songs. If you’ve recorded a demo, too many people have heard your songs; the risk of stealing them is simply not worth it to them. Especially as you’re considered a nobody and they hear hundreds of songs a week. It’s extremely unlikely that your songs will be stolen.

At the very least, poor man’s method. Government registration if you can afford it. Even though the risk is incredibly minimal, perhaps one of the person’s you’re sending your package out to has changed jobs and has been replaced by someone who is new in the business and is not quite honest. There is also the incredibly small, yet existing, chance that your CD will get mixed up with someone else’s and that they’ll get signed on the strength of your songs and think nothing of making them their own. As I said, although the risk is extremely low, it still worth spending a bit on protecting your work.

Scenario D

You have just recorded an independent album which you are self-releasing.

Increased protection, right?

Wrong. Spend a bit more on your CD’s booklet and print the lyrics, all the lyrics, in it. Now you have published songs. The songs which are undeniably in audio form, with the lyrics and all writing credits are now out in the public, in a form which is available to a few hundred people. Believe it or not, but publication is even better protection than government registration. Consider it the ultimate in protection. You have proof positive of ownership and dates, etc. You have the musicians, engineer, producer, etc., who worked on the album with you who can bear witness that these are your songs.

Advantages and disadvantages of each method

Poor Man’s Method

  • Advantages
    • Cheap (the cost of a stamp or registered mail)
    • Relatively fast: the package should arrive within a day or two
  • Disadvantages
    • Easy to forget doing
    • Easy to lose: if lost, protection is also lost

Government Registration

  • Advantages
    • The whole song (lyrics, chord progression and melody) is registered with the authorities
    • If you lose your registration certificate, they can send you another one and your protection is still dated to the moment you registered your song
  • Disadvantages
    • Can be costly
    • Songs that are registered this way are available for anyone to see, thus increasing the risk of theft
    • Before the bureaucrats go through your request and forms, etc., it can take a while before registration becomes effective
    • You cannot post-date your copyrights


  • Advantages
    • The absolute in song protection, all that makes your song is available for everyone to see, yet in a format which undeniably proves these are your songs
    • You can post-date your copyrights
  • Disadvantages
    • Costly: you need not only to record an album, but also to produce enough copies (usually at least 100, but you check with your country’s laws on publication) to make it legal. This can run in the thousands of dollars

Remember that for anyone to claim ownership of your songs, they must prove that they wrote them before you did. They must also prove that you had opportunity to hear their song in order to eliminate the chance of coincidence.

Post-dating the Copyright

Just a quick word on this subject. As I’m sure you’re all aware, after a certain delay, a song or any other work of art falls into “public domain”. This means that nobody can be paid royalties on it. If, for example, you record Beethoven’s Sonate Pathétique, you don’t have to worry about paying copyright royalties, they are not due; there is no copyright.

Now laws change regularly on this subject and vary from country to country. It used to be that you (or your succession) owned a copyright for 50 years from the moment it was written, then it fell into public domain. Later governments offered the possibility of one copyright renewal which had to be registered (by yourself or your succession) before the end of those 50 years. The renewal was valid for another 50 years from the date of renewal. Now most countries have made them un-renewable, but have augmented the validity of a copyright to 75 or even 100 years. Check with your own country’s laws on the subject and be aware that this can change again over time.

In order to gain a longer protection, artists post-date their songs. If you look at the credits on a CD that came out this year, it should say something like “all songs ©2003, by …” It is possible that all the songs on that album were written this year, but that is generally not the case. Most of the time, a band or songwriter will bring in an older song that they’ve never recorded and it will still say ©2003 instead of ©1997. The reason for this is that they gain an extra six years before the song falls into public domain. Don’t worry, I’ve seen artists do this even when they have been playing the song live for 10 years or have admitted in interviews that the songs are much older than that. Greg Lake put the copyright date for Lucky Man as 1971 even though he admits to having written the song when he was 12, therefore in 1956.

They will usually have another form of protection for their songs anyway but know that it’s unlikely that they’ll ever get sued or need to sue. If the artist has an envelope from poor man’s method which dates back to 1997, it will be admissible in court anyway. The artist need only say that writing ©2003 on the CD jacket was a misprint or an oversight.

The thing to remember is that you should use poor man’s method as soon as possible just in case you need it later on. By doing it right away, you don’t forget it. You can also include a CD of yourself strumming and singing the song; don’t worry about the quality, as long as one can make out the song.

As for adding extra levels of protection, you should first ask yourself whether or not you really need it.