Copyright your song lyrics: how to protect your creative works

You've slaved and sweated, paced the floor in your lonely garret, almost overdosed on too-strong coffee, and finally, given birth to your magnum opus - your greatest work. Perhaps that's on old-fashioned, romantic view of the writer of a bygone era, but sometimes after a long session at the computer keyboard, we can relate to struggles of that writer of yore.

Songwriters sometimes seem to struggle even longer and harder to create their works, in no small part because it can be difficult to find the space and solitude to write undisturbed - to be able wail away on a song, safe from listening ears, or armchair critics who might overhear your stumbling attempts. Finally, though, you create a wonderful piece of music, perhaps your best ever. How do you protect your efforts from the song sharks that prey on unwary, unprotected songwriters?

Do you write notation?

Photo from people.bukiki.com
Photo from people.bukiki.com

What is "copyright?"

According to Dictionary.com, copyright in the United States is defined as follows:

cop·y·right

[kop-ee-rahyt] –noun 1. the exclusive right to make copies, license, and otherwise exploit a literary, musical, or artistic work, whether printed, audio, video, etc.: works granted such right by law on or after January 1, 1978, are protected for the lifetime of the author or creator and for a period of 50 years after his or her death.

What does "copyright" protect? According to the US Copyright Office:

"Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed"

What does this mean? Copyright actually exists from the moment the work is created - the moment you write that last word, place the last note on the staves, scrawl your name across the bottom of a sketch or photograph, pencil the letters A.P. (Artist's Proof) on a freshly-pulled stone lithograph - you own that intellectual property.

The right to copy your work, particularly for profit - such as making CDs of your songs, having giclees, or cards made of your art works, or publishing your articles in books and magazines - belongs solely to you, the creator, unless, of course, you assign these rights to someone else.

Protect your work by registering your copyright

Often, authors, songwriters, and artists will refer to copyrighting their work. What they really mean is that they register the copyright with a recognized agency.

Registering your copyright with the government Copyright Registry (in Canada, with the Canadian Intellectual Properties Office) provides you with a legal document to prove your ownership as creator of the work, should any legal dispute or court action arise.

Some associations to which artists/song-writers belong, such as SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada), ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), or BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) collect performance royalties for their members, and as part of this, they maintain a registry of song titles belonging to each artist.

Most of these societies recommend that the composer or writer also register their entire work with either the appropriate government agency or the Library of Congress.

Could you write on this baby?

Photo from vickeryb.blogspot.com
Photo from vickeryb.blogspot.com

Registering your work with the Library of Congress

The process of registering your songs or your writings can seem fairly daunting the first time around. There are so many unfamiliar, official forms, and what looked, at first glance, like a lot of small print.

I found a kindly and knowledgeable staff person at the other end of the Library's customer service phone number, though, and with her guidance, I was able to understand what was required, and to complete the forms.

Once it was all said and done, the process was really quite painless, and the forms weren't nearly as daunting as they first seemed - it was actually simple and straightforward after I got past my initial panic response to the fine print.

To register a song required a lead sheet, with the chords and lyrics, if you composed the lyrics, or actual sheet music of your composition. If you do not write notation, you can elect to send a CD of each song along with its lyric sheet.

Again, please note that you can register your copyright for the melody and lyrics, and though the song (or book, or other writing) is listed under it's title, you cannot actually claim the copyright of the title - you cannot own a title.

The Library of Congress lists the following costs:

Registration, Recordation, and Other Services
Effective Aug. 1
Online registration of a basic claim in an original work of authorship (electronic filing)
$35
Registration of a basic claim in an original work of authorship on Form CO (paper filing with 2-D barcode-generated form)
$50
Registration of a basic claim in an original work of authorship on Forms PA, SR, TX, VA, SE (paper filing)
$65
Registration of a claim in a group of contributions to periodicals (Form GR/CP), or database updates (paper filing)
$65
Registration of a group of published photographs (Form GR/PPh/CON) (paper filing)
$65

Ouch - that's expensive!

As you can see from the table above, registering a single song online will cost $35.00. If you have a number of songs to register, your costs will add up fairly quickly. Perhaps you are only able to register some of your songs right now.

It can be difficult for a "starving artist" to choose which of their works to protect, and it's important to protect them all, as you can never know which work will capture the attention of a producer, agent, or your growing fan base.

Home Recording Set-up

Photo from laptoprepair.co.uk
Photo from laptoprepair.co.uk

Is there a cheaper way to register my copyright?

The short answer is, "Yes." Many agencies will offer you cheap rates to register your creations. I would recommend registering your works with a totally trusted source - a government copyright registration office, or a reputable professional organization such as SOCAN, ASCAP, or BMI, etc.

There is a method to protect your copyright though, that is quite inexpensive and easy for anyone to use.

If you write notation, mail a copy of your song to yourself - double registered. This requires that as well as being signed for, the parcel will be time stamped on delivery. When your parcel arrives, sign for it, tape the receipt to the envelope, and put it in a file for safe-keeping. If the ownership of your material is ever in dispute, present the unopened file in court to prove your ownership as of the date on the envelope (God bless the postal service).

If you do not write notation, the process simply requires an extra step or two..

  1. Make a recording of your song on a CD. This can be done with a digital voice recorder that plugs in to your computer to transfer the music file. If you do not have access to a DVR or a computer, make the best recording of your song you can using a cassette recorder. Don't worry about harmony lines or fully-produced backup - keep it simple. All you need is a clear lead line showing the melody. You can also use a flash drive, but this can be wasteful, as it is best to have one recording for each song.
  2. Make a clean, legible copy of your lead sheet, with neatly-typed lyrics and chords.
  3. As above, double register the parcel containing the CD together with your lead sheet, and, after signing the receipt and taping it to the parcel, place it in a safe place.

To sum up...

Yes, by all means, you should protect your copyright on any work you create, be it a song, a short story, a novel, or a photograph.

It may seem far-fetched right now to think that someone would try to steal your work, or claim that your work was, in fact, stolen from them. After all, you are an unknown, undiscovered writer. I am sure though, that J.K. Rowling was grateful she kept such exhaustive, dated notes of all her plots and ideas when someone claimed prior authorship of her Harry Potter books.

Plan ahead, and take your work seriously. Taking time now to protect your material could save you a lot trouble down the road.

© 2011 RedElf

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33 comments

Clairepeek profile image

Clairepeek 5 years ago

Hello Redelf!

So much wisdom from your hub... it is funny that you should post this just after I actually registered the copyrights of my own work. I found the link to a free registering agency - thanks to Hyphenbird. It is called MyFreeCopyright.com... you should have a look ^_^

Useful and important hub.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

Hi, Clairepeek! I will definitely check out that site. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.


FloraBreenRobison profile image

FloraBreenRobison 5 years ago

I've bookmarked this for later. My father is a member of ASCAP for his music. (Yes, he is originally from US.)


RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

Hey, Flora, I signed on with BMI waaaaay back when. It became SOCAN in the '80s, and I have been with them ever since.


acaetnna profile image

acaetnna 5 years ago from Guildford

Wow what an amazing hub. Thank you.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

You are most welcome, acaetnna. Sometimes we learn things the hard way, but they sure stick then :D


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York

Excellent!!! Very clear info on how to proceed. You are the best for giving this info in a clear, readable, charming way.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

Aaaaw, thanks so much, Paradise7. You have a pretty nice way with a comment, too.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

Hi, this is a much more detailed and adult version of my rant recently! lol seriously it is important to protect your work and these are really good ideas, and very easy to understand, thanks nell


RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

Nell, you are most welcome. Thanks for your kind comment. Copyright infringers are only a few step closer to the innermost circle than SPAMMERS. The internet version of an old adage could well be, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, infringe copyrights."


drbj profile image

drbj 5 years ago from south Florida

Excellent information, Elle, presented in an easy to understand way. Thank you.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

Thanks so much, drbj. It's information I had to learn the hard way, so hopefully this can save someone else a hard lesson.


akirchner profile image

akirchner 5 years ago from Central Oregon

Great info, RedElf - and love the presentation!


RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

Thanks so much, akirchner, and cocgrats on your winning hub! Always glad to spread the word on such things.


Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 5 years ago from London, UK

Very good advice and it seems to increase rapidly that works are being stolen.


Phil Plasma profile image

Phil Plasma 5 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

This is terrific advice. While I am not a music composer, I am a writer and welcome the tips you share. You get a vote-up and useful from me.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

Yes, there seems to be a lot of that going around these days. Some seem to be too lazy to create their own work.

Thanks for the vote up, Phil. All creators of works have to keep an eye out for these pirates.


Pollyannalana profile image

Pollyannalana 5 years ago from US

I copyright all my work that really mean something to me before I publish it but what is to keep someone from changing a title and jiggling the words?


RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

First off, you can't claim copyright of a title. Second, changing the title and jiggling the words won't save the plagiarist. The judge will decide based on "substantial and substantive similarity" between the two works in question, as well as by the earliest provable date of copyright registration. That means whoever stole your work would have to completely rewrite the whole piece, and substantially change the underlying idea (plot line).


Polly 5 years ago

Thanks, that is good to know, and I already knew you can't own a title but many here saying that is what people do and some don't even bother changing anything. I think I will try that copyright you mention with one I have a copyright on just to see how it is and if it looks good, would save lots of money. Thanks!


RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

Too true, Polly - some try to call it their own without changing a single word, the shameless wretches. Good luck!


rjsadowski profile image

rjsadowski 5 years ago

A very useful article. I assume that most of this applies to poetry and other literary works. The links and table of prices are particularly useful.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

Actually, it applies specifically to song lyrics, but I would imagine you could use a similar method for poetry and other literary works. In protection of your online articles, you can also file a DMCA with the appropriate parties.


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 5 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

Interesting RedElf. I've written a few songs in my day, mostly poems. I've written more stories though, and created more art than songs far and away.I read this because I wondered if copywriting images or stories would be similar? Do you happen to know?

Great topic, and well written!

Ben


RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

Hey, Ben. I have a friend who kept all his photographic negatives in acid-free envelopes in the deep freeze. Each envelope was labeled with the date the photos were taken. He also kept files of the photos grouped by subject, with dates, locations, and any other pertinent info. He signs Each photo was on the white border with a copyright symbol,the date, and his neatly printed name. He said it felt funny the first time, but soon became a habit.

I have a file containing a hard copy (paper copy) of each story I have written, along with a copy of each major revision, and any notes I have made for plot, character, etc. Each has the date it was printed or written stamped on it. As well, I keep a copy of everything on a jump drive.

It's like keeping versions of a computer program - every time I make revisions, I name the file/story by the date it was edited. For example a story titled "Ashes" would become "Ashes09_23_11 if I edited or added to it today. That also makes it easy to keep track of the latest revisions.

It may seem like a lot of work, but not once you get into the habit of doing it all the time.


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 5 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

I like that Red. I've always felt, that if someone stole one of my images, or stories, and it looked like they made a bunch of money from it, then I could go back and sue them. If they didn't make much from it, but still got my name out, then it's like a free commercial. I'm happy to report that Hubpages has caught several people stealing my content and reported it! Then they deleted the stolen content, victory for us hubbers! Great story about your friend and the photos, love it.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

You're welcome, Ben. I agree with you about getting your name out - free publicity is good! Smiting article snatchers is even better :D


john000 profile image

john000 4 years ago from Superior, Arizona

Great info. I recently had two people copy one of my articles.

The threat of putting Google on them got results. Removed within a couple hours. This might help others.

Thanks.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

D.M.C.A. action is a great way to reply to copyright infringement, john000. I have used it successfully many times. Google is a big stick when it comes to reminding others of your rights. :D


ufk profile image

ufk 4 years ago from Maidstone England

Excellent hub...thank you. I've heard of songs and ideas being stolen from writers and it IS worrying...yes....because of the financial aspect of having to prove your ownership if you are lacking in funds...and...maybe fighting against a huge corporation. I've had a few items 'stolen' from me by large firms. It is extremely frustrating. There is something I have been wondering for a long time. When a writer publishes a story on the net...or a singer puts his song on youtube....does that not effectively copyright it? I have put many original songs on the net...some have been there for 7 years or so. Is that not proof of ownership...as someone can hardly come along and post the song again...falsifying the date? I'm just wondering what the legalities are with that. I'd be interested to know what your feelings are on that? Thank you...great hub :)

Andy


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada Author

Hi, Andy! No, posting your songs or stories online does not "copyright" them. Copyright exists from the moment of creation.

Being the first to post something online does not prove you created it - it just proves you posted it first. What you must do to protect your material is register that material.

The easiest method is to make a hard copy (DVD or CD) of your material before you post it. Then send the DVD or CD to yourself double registered.

When it arrives, and you sign for it, it will be date and time stamped, and guaranteed by the post office as the correct, legal date and time of delivery, showing when you possessed that material! As that date will show you possessed the material before the material was posted, it effectively proves ownership.

DO NOT OPEN the package. Put it away. Then if you are ever challenged, or you want to challenge someone who steals your material, you can take that DVD or CD UNOPENED to the judge for them to decide the case.


Naomi Palonen profile image

Naomi Palonen 2 years ago from Sharon, Pennsylvania

Great hub! I am a writer/singer-songwriter.. Thank u for the very useful information!


RedElf profile image

RedElf 2 years ago from Canada Author

Most welcome - and thank you for the comment :)

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