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Protecting Your Music and Your Wallet

How Copyright, Licensing, and Common Sense Can Help You Survive in the Music Business

     It’s one thing to face an audience with the sweaty upper lip of performance anxiety. It’s quite another to lie awake worrying about having your music ripped off or being taken to the cleaners by some faceless corporate suit. Can’t help you today with the stage jitters. But here’s an introductory handle on some music biz clout to help you get to sleep after the gig.

     Do you perform your own material? Do you have a recording to sell at gigs or one in the works? In a perfect world, you would be the undisputed author of all your original material and would be paid by everyone everywhere who uses your music in any way. Sound unlikely? Happily, it’s better than you might think.

     You need three music industry allies: The U.S. Copyright Office, a performing rights organization like ASCAP, BMI or SESAC, and an arts attorney. The Copyright Office will give you control of your work. The performing rights organization (or PRO) will see that you get paid when your music is performed out in the world. Both are easy and inexpensive to deal with and are absolute musts for your success. And an arts attorney can help you with more than contracts. So let’s meet each ally in turn.


     Copyrighting a song or an album won’t get you paid anything by itself. But it will compel anyone using your work to pay you the going rate. A copyright, registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, is the universally acknowledged declaration that you are the original author of your work. It is good for your lifetime plus 50 years. And in addition to the certificate of authorship, your $30 registration fee buys you the considerable might of U.S. copyright law protection.

     So when should you copyright your work? Register any original musical work that goes out in the world, whether performed by you, written out by you, or recorded by anybody. If you wrote it, the composition is protected. If you recorded it, your unique arrangement is protected. If you’re trying to get a song picked up by an agent or another artist, make sure you copyright it before you show it around. If you’re sending out a demo in hopes of a record contract, make sure it’s copyrighted before you present it.

     Now, the cool thing is that for $30 you can copyright a single song, an album full of songs, a demo, or every song you’ve ever written. You use the PA (Performing Arts) form for an unrecorded work or collection of works and the SR (Sound Recording) form for any recorded work. These forms are downloadable from the Copyright Office website and easy to fill out. What written materials or recordings you must include with form and check are clearly explained.

     You can copyright a demo or a transcribed collection of songs as a "work in progress." This gives you total protection while you shop your stuff. Then, when you land a record deal, you’re allowed to copyright each song you record again separately. This gets you clearly into the massive Library of Congress database so people can find you if they want to cover your music. It also keeps your songs tidily separate for reference by PRO’s or in case anyone wants to negotiate for special rights. Careless musicians have often sold the rights to one song, only to discover that they’d lost control of every other song that shared the copyright. In the long run, separate registration is worth the money.

     You have likely heard of the "poor man’s copyright," which suggests that you avoid the fee and just mail your song to yourself in a sealed envelope. There are two things wrong with this dodge. First, it’s never been tested in court. Second, even if you win an infringement case this way, since there’s no documented copyright, you lose out on punitive damages, which can be up to $150,000 per proven infringement.

The joys of getting paid for your music

     There are two kinds of royalties: performance royalties and mechanical royalties. Performance royalties are paid for every commercial performance of a registered song (radio play, elevators, in-flight entertainment, video game soundtracks, corporate voice mail, and just about any other uses for music you can think of). Mechanical royalties are paid for every CD or other physical object sold that contains your music. Let’s take performance royalties first.

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