Music Copyrights for Musicians: Rules, Fees, & Legal Cases

Musicians' Crash Course on Music Copyrights - De Novo Agency

In 2019, a trio of songwriters filed a case against trendsetting pop music artist Lizzo, alleging that her hit song “Truth Hurts” made use of some lyrics originally created by them for a different song titled “Healthy”. A year later, the case was dismissed owing to the claimants’ inability to prove that LIzzo’s song was a “derivative” of their work.

Musicians today must not only understand the basics of music copyright law, but also have the practical knowhow to effectively safeguard their creative work. Unfortunately, most online resources on music copyrights do little to help artists navigate the practicalities of protecting their rights.

This article is designed to do exactly that. From easy-to-understand instructions on copyright registration for the most common types of musical works – single tracks, albums and music videos, all the way through to thumb rules for navigating copyright infringement and litigation.

So dive in!  

How to Copyright a Song?

As per US copyright law, the creator of a musical work (song, music video or other) automatically owns its copyrights by “fixing” or creating a physical or digital record of it. Defending one’s copyright requires legal proof of ownership, such as registration with the United States Copyright Office.

Thus, the question that most musicians are really asking is, “How do I register the copyrights to my song?” In order to answer this question, it is essential to first understand how the law defines “ownership” in the context of music. 

Who Owns the Rights to a Song?

In the music industry, a clear grasp of who holds the copyrights to a song's various elements is more often the exception than the norm. This fog of misunderstanding can and often does lead to legal tangles and disputes about who owns what.

According to the United States Copyright Office or USCO, copyright ownership of a musical work is clearly bifurcated between ownership of the underlying musical composition and ownership of the physical song, that is, its audio or sound recording.

  • Ownership of the musical composition – this includes the song lyrics as well as the sheet music or song’s musical structure (the details of the song’s chord progression, melody, counter-melody and harmony)
  • Ownership of the physical song – this is the audio or sound recording of the song, irrespective of the storage format, and includes all physical media as well as digital files

Understanding this split is key for any artist diving into copyright registration. Before you start, know what you own: Is it the musical composition, the sound recording, or both? Getting this straight isn't just ticking a legal box; it's essential to protecting your creative output.

Registering a Song Copyright

As an artist, you might be eligible to register one or several copyrights for a single musical work. The requirement for multiple copyrights depends on your distinct contribution to the song (or other musical work).

Knowing exactly which elements of a song you own – the lyrics, the melody, the recording, or all of these – not only streamlines the copyright registration process but also ensures comprehensive protection of your rights. Copyrighting all aspects of your creative contributions helps to ensure that you get your rightful share of streaming and performance royalties, sync licensing fees and other sources of music income.   

Steps for registration

There are 3 major steps to registering a song copyright with the USCO:

  • Completing the online application

    The first step is to fill out the application on the USCO’s website. The USCO recommends online applications as more efficient compared to paper applications, reinforcing this with a steep fee differential. (Paper applications can cost 3x digital applications!)

    Choosing the right copyright application is crucial, because applying in an incorrect category can lead to your application being rejected. Refer to the next section for tips on how to choose the right application.

    • Paying the registration fee

    Once the application is completed, the next step involves paying the mandatory registration fee, which varies based on the application type. See table below for copyright registration fee details.

    • Uploading the mandatory deposit

      The final step in USCO music copyright registration requires a mandatory deposit of the relevant musical element: digital files (size limit 500MB) are allowed for unpublished musical compositions and/or sound recordings. For published music, 2 “best”/ highest quality physical copies are required.

      Selecting the right registration application

      • When you own every aspect of a song

      If you are the sole copyright owner of a song, that is, you own the song lyrics, the musical structure (chords, melody, harmony et al.) as well as the sound recording, including the vocal and production elements, use the USCO menu option ‘Register One Work by One Author’ for registration.

      • When you own one or more elements of a song

      If you own the copyrights to one or more elements (but not the entirety) of a song, use the USCO menu option ‘Standard Application’ for registration.

      Make sure to enter correct and complete ownership details in the field for ‘Type of Authorship’:

      • Check the box beside “Sound Recording” if you own it.
      • In the “Other” field beside “Sound Recording”, type out your exact contribution (lyrics and/or musical structure)

      Registering a music album or ‘group of musical works’

      For registering copyrights to a music album, the USCO provides two menu options – ‘Group Registration of Unpublished Works’ (GRUW) for up to 10 unpublished songs and ‘Group Registration of Works on an Album of Music’ (GRAM) for up to 20 published songs.

      As the above category names indicate, GRUW registrations are ideal for an unreleased album, while a published album requires a GRAM registration. Note that, for both categories, the registration of the musical compositions and the sound recordings must be done separately.

      Tip: Both GRUW and GRAM music copyright registrations require at least one common author among the songs registered as part of the album. Thus, songs written and recorded by a band as part of a single album are eligible for GRUW and GRAM registrations.

      Tip 2: Music copyright applicants are often confused among the USCO categories of ‘group registration’, ‘collective works’ and ‘unit of publication’. A collection of songs with distinct songwriters, producers and so forth, say a themed compilation called “Memories of Christmas” or “Winter Nights” is not eligible for GRUW or GRAM registration. Obtaining the copyrights to all the songs allows the new owner to register the compilation as a collective work or a unit of publication (if on a single CD or other medium).

      Fees for music copyright registration

      As stated in the previous section, the fees for music copyright registration depend on the type of copyright being applied for. The fees for the most common categories of music copyright applications are summarized in the table below.

      Music Copyright Category USCO Registration Fee
      Electronic/ Digital Application (eCO)
      Sole copyright owner of unpublished/ published musical work (“One Work by One Author”) $45
      Owner of one/ more elements of unpublished/ published musical work(“Standard Application”) $65
      Published music album(“Group Registration of Works on an Album of Music”/ GRAM) $65
      Unpublished music album(“Group Registration of Unpublished Works”/ GRUW) $85
      Paper Application (all categories) $125

      Note that the above table lists fees only for musical works created by independent artists, and does not apply to works created by hired artists. 

      A separate USCO category of “works made for hire” applies to all music created by artists hired by an individual or organization; guidelines for copyrighting such music are available in USCO Circular 30.

      How long do music copyrights last? 

      The duration of a music copyright hinges on its publication date. Copyright validity for music published post January 1, 1978 equals the author’s lifetime plus seventy (70) years. Music published before 1978 has a maximum copyright duration of 95 years (initial 28 years plus 64-year extension).

      Here again, the rules differ for the “works made for hire” category, so be sure to check for the rules that apply to your music. 

      Registering a Copyright for a Music Video

      The bulk of modern-day music releases incorporate both audio and video elements. As a staple of the entertainment industry, copyright registration procedures for music videos are clearly defined by the USCO.

      Copyright registration dos and don’ts for music videos

      The USCO defines a music video as a “derivative work”, since it builds upon the underlying musical composition and sound recording, layering a visual element on top of these elements. Follow the guidelines below in applying for copyright registration for your music video.

      • Use the ‘Standard Application’ menu option

        The USCO ‘Standard Application’ copyright menu option is the most inclusive and flexible of all registration options and thus best suited for registering a music video copyright.

        • Ensure accuracy of ‘Authors’ field information

          Provide a complete and correct list of all contributors to the music video. The list must include:

            • All contributors to the music’s audio element, including songwriter, composer, vocal artist, audio engineer, music producer and so on
            • All contributors to the music’s video element, including scriptwriter, choreographer, costume designer, special effects creator, director and so forth
          • Provide ‘Types of Authorship’ details

            Under this field, type out clear and correct descriptions of the nature of each author’s contribution to the music video. See point #2 above for helpful hints on compiling a complete list of authors.

            • Do not use ‘One Work by One Author’ menu option

              Under no circumstances should you use the ‘One Work by One Author’ menu option for registering a music video. The USCO defines a music video as a video filmed by one (or more) individual, featuring at least one other individual. As such, a music video is ineligible for sole copyright ownership.

              Music videos posted on social media platforms

              The digital age has transformed the way music videos are consumed and shared. Platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok have become the primary avenues for dissemination of music videos. Here are some helpful tools and techniques for promoting your music video.

              However, the ease of posting music videos on social media platforms raises an important question concerning music copyright: 

              Is posting a music video on YouTube, Facebook, Tiktok or other social media the same as publishing it?

              Music copyright: The distinction between ‘performance’ and ‘publication’

              The USCO defines 'publication' as the distribution of copies to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. 

              By USCO definition, ‘publication’ of music requires the copyright owner to sell, lend or lease the work. Thus, a music video posted on social media platforms such as YouTube, TikTok or Facebook may be considered to be “published” only if its owner has made it available for sharing and download.

              Thus, a music video that does not have ‘share’ or ‘download’ options enabled may be considered unpublished, particularly if the owner has not made any other efforts to distribute said video. Registering such a work as “unpublished” may be more appropriate. (Check out this helpful DeNovo Agency blog on how to maximize the mileage from your YouTube video ad campaign.)

              Legal experts on ‘publishing’ music videos through social media

              A survey of legal opinions showed us that attorneys specializing in copyright infringement law are still divided in their opinion regarding whether a music video posted on a social media platform such as YouTube may or may not be considered “published”. 

              As such, applicants for music video copyright registration are cautioned to proceed extremely carefully, with due consultation of legal experts.

              Music Copyright Infringement and Protection

              In the present day, when anyone with a cellphone can create music-related content, understanding music copyright infringement is crucial for everyone. Learning about copyright infringement and protection is not only about securing your own rights, but equally about respecting the rights of other creators.  

              Protecting your music copyright

              Owning the copyrights is an inherent part of creating music that is recognized by law. However, legal experts recommend registering your musical work with the USCO as the most robust form of legal protection against copyright violations. 

              Aside from USCO registration, some music industry veterans suggest the following alternative, zero-cost methods for securing your music copyright ownership:

              • USPO date stamp and seal

                One such method involves mailing a copy of your song (or other work) to yourself, thereby creating a dated record of your creation. Keeping the package sealed ensures its validity as evidence in a court of law.

                • Email date and witness testimony

                  Another approach is to email a copy to a trustworthy friend or mentor who can act as a witness. The automatically generated date on the email serves as a time-stamp of the creation.

                  • Online publication with attribution

                    Additionally, publishing your song online with clear attribution establishes your ownership publicly. One recommendation is to add a ‘copyright notice’ when publishing your work. A simple copyright notice may consist of just 4 elements:

                    •  the word “copyright”
                    • the symbol “©” or the abbreviation “Copr.”
                    • the year of creation and creator’s name, and lastly
                    • the nature of the copyright

                    For example, “ Copyright © 2024, Jane Doe. All rights reserved.”

                    These alternative methods for securing music copyrights may be in widespread use owing to their simplicity and cost-effectiveness. Such steps may indeed provide some level of protection. 

                    In particular, adding a copyright notice to a published work serves as a deterrent to potential violators. Nevertheless, USCO registration remains the most definitive, legally binding method for protecting your music copyright.

                    What is 'fair use' in the context of music copyright?

                    Fair use is a legal doctrine allowing limited use of copyrighted works without the owner's prior consent, mainly for purposes of commentary, criticism or reporting. In litigation, ‘fair use’ is decided case by case, with no set rules about the segment or amount of a work that may be used ‘fairly’.

                    Given the lack of any clear-cut definitions, ‘fair use’ remains a highly contested subject in the domain of music copyright. In copyright litigation involving musical works being used for commercial gain, the ‘fair use’ doctrine is less likely to apply.

                    The Final Word on Music Copyrights

                    In the realm of music copyrights, three key takeaways stand out:

                    • First, clarity about the nature of your copyright ownership is essential. Understanding exactly what aspects of a musical work you own—whether it's the composition, the recording, or both—sets the foundation for all subsequent actions. 
                    • Second, securing legally defensible proof of ownership, preferably through USCO registration, is crucial. This step provides the strongest protection for your work. 
                    • Finally, respecting the rights of other creators is a fundamental practice in the music industry. 
                    These principles guide artists in effectively safeguarding their creations while upholding the integrity of the broader creative community.