As soon as a person creates an original and creative work that is in some fixed form, he or she owns copyright in that work. A work is considered to be in a “fixed form” when it is documented in some perceptible medium (whether directly perceptible or perceptible with the aid of a machine or device) - it can’t just be an idea in someone’s head. Examples of “fixed forms” include sound recordings or musical notation of the work.
Once the work has been documented in a fixed form, the person who created it has the exclusive ownership of a “bundle” of rights with regard to that work. These rights include: the right to reproduce the work, the right to sell and distribute the work, the right to publicly perform the work, and the right to create derivative works. A derivative work is a modification of an original work. For example, if you write a song and then later write new lyrics for that song or re-record it with different instrumentation, you have created a derivative work.
As the owner of a copyright who exclusively owns the bundle of rights described above, you may restrict others from using your creative work, may demand compensation for the use and distribution of your work, and may sell some or all of these rights to another person (i.e. a publisher). On the other hand, if you do not own copyright in the work, you need to properly license the work from the copyright holder.
What does copyright generally protect? ^
Copyright only protects the original and creative expression of the work, so long as that work is in some fixed form. That is, only those aspects of the work that were generated by creativity may be protected by copyright. Additionally, underlying ideas, concepts, layout, facts, titles, slogans, names, phrases, and the “feel” of a work are not protected under copyright (names and slogans may be protected by trademark rather than copyright law). So, while the creative aspects of your song are protected by copyright, you may not claim copyright ownership of the general style or “feel” of the song.
Can two or more people own the copyright to a single work? ^
Yes. If two or more people created a work, the copyright will be owned jointly unless there is an agreement to the contrary. In order to be joint owners of the copyright, however, each person’s contribution must constitute an original and creative expression. A person whose contribution is original and creative will be a joint author, even if his contribution is less than the contribution of the other author(s).
How do I give others permission to use my materials? ^
If you own copyright in your musical work, you may directly license your musical work to others so they may record their own sound recording. You may also license your work through the Harry Fox Agency, which provides automatic (mechanical) licenses required by law to artists interested in making 2,500 or fewer copies of a sound recording. The Harry Fox Agency also manages licensing sound recordings exceeding 2,500 copies and sound recordings that will be distributed online. For more information, visit www.harryfox.com.
Because you own a bundle of rights in a musical work and another bundle of rights in a sound recording (assuming you write and record the song), you may also license your rights to and collect royalties from people interested in rearranging or re-recording your work, distributing your work through radio, television, film, and the Internet, and performing your work publicly. For more information on licensing distribution rights, see PRS FAQs.
Do I need to register my material with the Copyright Office? ^
Although you automatically have copyright protection in your work as soon as the work has been fixed in some perceptible form, there are many advantages to registration. Registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office provides a public record of your copyright, which is extremely helpful in proving that your song is really yours. In the event that someone tries to steal some or all of your song, having registered evidence of what you created and when you created it will help you defend yourself. Registration may also provide you with a broader range of remedies if someone infringes your copyright.
I’ve heard about a “poor man’s copyright,” what is it? ^
The term “poor man’s copyright” refers to the practice of mailing a copy of your own work to yourself (and then leaving the envelope sealed) so as to provide evidence of when the work was created. Problem is, producing a fake poor man’s copyright is not difficult to do (i.e. you can mail an empty, unsealed envelope to yourself and then put something in it anytime after receiving it) and so, much more proof that the work is actually yours will be needed in a court of law. Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is a much better way of documenting that the work is yours.
How do I register my songs? ^
To register your songs with the Copyright Office, you will need to submit an application form, a nonrefundable filing fee, and a nonreturnable copy or copies of the work to be registered. Contact the U.S. Copyright Office at (202) 707-9100 or visit the website at http://www.copyright.gov/ for details.
Is my copyright good in other countries? ^
Technically, copyrights are territorial. However, the United States has copyright relations with many other countries throughout the world and so those countries honor each other’s citizens’ copyrights. For a listing of countries that have copyright relations with the United States, visit the US Copyright Office website.
What are the chances my song will be stolen? ^
It is pretty unlikely that someone will steal your entire song. Unless your song is already producing a significant amount of money, it is not likely your song will be a target (especially since then that person would have to do all the leg-work in getting your song to a point where it might make money).
Should I register my material before submitting it to a Broadjam Opportunity or Contest? ^
It is generally a good idea to register your song with the Copyright Office before distributing it to anyone. Since the copyright registration does take several months to process, it’s ok to submit your song after you have filed, but before receiving confirmation that your registration is complete.
Can I sample someone else’s music? ^
According to the fair use doctrine of the U.S. Copyright statute, it is permissible to use limited portions of another’s work, but only for purposes such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, and scholarly reports. Although there are no legal rules indicating a permissible number of words, musical notes or percentage of a work that may be sampled, if you intend on selling or otherwise distributing your song, it is just not a good idea to have included samples of someone else’s work without the copyright owner’s permission. If you really want to sample someone else’s work, it is advisable to obtain permission from the copyright owner, who may demand a fee for the sampling of his or her music.
When does a work become part of the public domain? ^
Generally, if a work is over 95 years old, it is in the public domain. This means that you may re-record it or use it to create a derivative work without fear of legal repercussion. For musical compositions and sound recordings that are close to 95 years old or less than 95 years old, it may be a good idea to consult an attorney to determine whether the work is in the public domain. The length of copyright protection depends on the year in which a work was created, and copyright law can be confusing regarding when a particular work passes into the public domain.
How much do I have to change in order to claim copyright in someone else’s work? ^
Only the owner of the copyright in a work has the right to prepare or to authorize someone else to create a new version of that work. You may not claim copyright in someone else’s work - even if it is a modified version of it - unless you have the owner’s consent to use all or a portion of his or her work. If you do obtain the owner’s consent to modify his or her work, you may own the copyright in your modifications only, so long as they are substantial and creative. Keep in mind that a copyright of a derivative work does not extend to any of the material in the original work.
How can I find the copyright owner for permission to use his or her music? ^
If a copyright owner has registered his work with the U.S. Copyright Office, the registration will be on file. Copyright registrations made from 1978 to the present are available online: http://www.copyright.gov.
What should I do if I believe that someone may be infringing copyright? ^
If you believe someone is infringing your copyright (even by sampling a segment of it), you may want to contact that person to notify him or her that you own the copyright in that material. After all, it may be that the person is not aware of the copyright laws. Before doing so, make sure to review what copyright does and does not protect. If the person persists in infringing your copyright, you may want to contact a copyright attorney to review your options.