A song’s copyright is its legal ownership. Among other things, owning a song’s copyright gives you the exclusive right to licensing the song, allowing you to earn royalties. That is, the copyright lets you make money off of the song by charging royalties, such as when it plays on an Atlanta radio station, gets sampled by another artist or is used in a commercial.
What does a copyright give you?
Each song actually has two copyrights. One copyright is for the song’s composition, or arranging the song’s melody, chords, notes and lyrics. The other copyright covers a song’s “master recording,” or a specific recording of a song. The songwriter or team of writers own this copyright, along with their music publisher, which also manages the copyright on the writers’ behalf. This copyright is created the moment a song is recorded or written down. A song must be original for its copyright to be legitimate.
The other form of music copyright is over a recording of the song. This is known as the master recording. The artist who performed the recording owns this copyright, though they often share it with their record label. This may or may not be the same person or group that composed the song. Another artist who records their own cover version of someone else’s song creates their own master recording. The owners of the composition copyright can charge a royalty for the use of their work. But they would not have the right to charge royalties for the use of the recording, which belongs to the cover artist and their label.
The copyright over a recording goes into effect as soon as the recording is “fixed,” which means put into a medium from which people can hear, record or otherwise communicate it. This includes digital tracks, CDs, LPs and cassette tapes.
Enforcing your music copyrights
While a music copyright is created the instant you finish writing a song or putting it on tape, enforcing your copyright is difficult unless you register it with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registering your copyright creates a public record of your original work and gives you the right to sue for copyright infringement if someone uses your song or master recording without your permission.
Copyright law can be very complicated. An attorney who represents musicians can help you protect your hard work, including in court if necessary.