There are many aspects to songwriting, from original inspiration to promotion and exploitation. Even the least sophisticated songwriters sense that as they move along that spectrum toward commercial success, business and legal entanglements increase. But even at the most purely artistic end of the spectrum, the writing of the song itself, there are legal considerations.

When you write a song, (music, lyrics, or both), you are creating a property which can be exploited, by you or others, for profit.  For this reason, rights to that property are subjects of legal maneuvering.  Whether you write alone, in collaboration with another writer, or as someone else’s employee, legal rights in the song are at stake.

Copyright is the primary legal right of a songwriter in his or her song.  At its most basic, the copyright is the right to copy.  The United States copyright laws elaborate by granting copyright owners the exclusive right to:

1)  Reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;

2)  Prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work;

3)  Distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending; and

4)  Perform or display the copyrighted work publicly;

These rights are subject to various limitations.  For example, a “compulsory license” permits mechanical reproduction of copyrighted works on phonorecords (i.e., putting a song on a record) without the owner’s permission upon payment of specified royalties and compliance with statutory conditions.

Who is the author of a song?  Generally, the person who wrote it.  If two or more people collaborate in the writing, the law presumes all the writers contributed equally, and therefore own the song and its copyright equally.  If this is not your intent, be sure to agree with your co-writers on the ownership percentages.  A letter, dated and signed by all of the writers should suffice.  Otherwise, you may come to find that the casual acquaintance who added a line or two to your almost-finished masterpiece is sharing royalties with you 50-50.  Just as significantly, if neither of you own the exclusive rights to the song, neither of you can grant publishers or other third parties exclusive rights to the song.  The market value of what you have to offer others for commercial exploitation is then negligible.

How long does that copyright protection last? The Copyright Act of 1976 provides that the copyright for songs created on or after January 1, 1978 lasts for the life of the songwriter, plus seventy years. Thereafter, the work falls into the public domain, with no copyright protection.  If the song was written by more than one collaborator, the term of the copyright is the life of the last surviving writer, plus seventy years.

Copyright protection exists for original works of authorship as soon as they become fixed in a tangible form of expression.  An original song recorded on tape qualifies.  It is automatic.  It does not require registration with the government, a (p) or (c) notation, a musical transcription, or even a recording of the song mailed to yourself.  These “requirements” come into play because of two issues:  the problem of proof and the legal remedies available in the event of copyright infringement.

Remember, if you have to go to court to sue someone for copyright infringement, (or anything else for that matter), you, as the plaintiff, have the burden of proof.  By mailing a copy of a recording to yourself by certified mail, return receipt requested, (and not opening it), you are simply adding to the evidence that you wrote the song.

Registration with the United States Copyright Office provides these important benefits:

1)  Establishes a public record of your copyright claim;

2)  Gives you access to federal courts for infringement actions;

3)  Shifts the burden of proof regarding the validity of your copyright to the other side; and

4)  Enables the judge to award you statutory damages, (as opposed to actual damages, which may not be very much), and recovery of your attorney’s fees if your infringement suit is successful.

This last benefit is of particular importance, as it increases the likelihood of hiring an attorney to handle the case on a contingent fee basis.

The copyright registration fee varies, depending on whether you are using paper forms or e-forms; however, the fee should be the same whether your registration is for one song or a compilation of songs by the same composer(s), and is well worth the benefits it bestows. Information on current fees, filing requirements, and how to obtain forms is available from the US Copyright Office at

You can file the copyright registration forms yourself. If you are too busy, nervous about forms, or don’t have a long-term address, hire an attorney to do it for you.