Copyright Essentials: 5 things every musician should know

copyright, bandzoogle, musician, music, recording, soundexchange, registered

This is a guest post by music attorney Beau Stapleton

1) So where should we start?

There are two distinct copyrightable elements to every recorded piece of music i) the musical work - the written arrangements of notes and lyrics and ii) the sound recording - the physical recording of a performance of that song.  

So if you record a cover version of a Prince song, you are the creator and owner of the sound recording. Prince is the owner of the underlying musical work. It is a simple enough distinction but something that is essential for understanding the ins and outs of music copyright and the music business in general.

For example, performing rights organizations (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC) and the Harry Fox Agency will collect and distribute royalties for your musical works. In contrast, the non-profit organization SoundExchange will collect and distribute digital performance royalties for your sound recordings (think plays of your track on Pandora and satellite radio). When you register your works with the Copyright Office, your musical works will be listed on a PA copyright form. Your sound recordings will be registered with a SR copyright form. You will use a © symbol to announce to the world your ownership in a musical work. Your sound recording copyrights get their own symbol: ℗

2) Do I need to do anything to have a copyright in my sound recording or musical work?


In legal speak an original work is ‘copyrighted’ when it is ‘fixed in a tangible medium of expression.’

What does this mean in real speak? Your original material is copyrighted the moment you write it down, record it into your iPhone, transcribe it, etc. You don’t have to register your work with the copyright office, put a © next to the song title on your lyric sheet, or mail yourself a copy of your record to have a valid copyright.  

3) Should I even register my songs with the Copyright Office?


Filing your musical work or sound recording with the US Copyright Office will still provide you, the copyright owner, with significant benefits.

Here are some incentives - if you file a completed copyright form within three months from the release of your work or prior to an infringement, you can recover attorneys’ fees and up to $150,000 in statutory damages per violation.  Filing will also provide a clear record that you are the true owner.

Think of registration as an insurance policy against possible future unauthorized uses of your work. Timely registration can make or break the financial feasibility of an infringement lawsuit. Registration is relatively cheap ($55), and can be done online.  In many instances one registration form can cover numerous works.

4) Is there anything I should think about when writing music with someone else?

Copyright law has some special rules for co-writers. When two people sit down with the intention of writing a song they are usually both owners of the resulting musical work. Copyright law refers to this as a joint work.  

As joint owners, both writers can exploit the musical work in certain ways (for example place the song in a film or advertisement) provided they pay their co-writer a share of the fees.  Get that. Each writer can individually license the song without obtaining the permission of the other! You should also know that in a situation where one writer contributes a definable section – for example the lyrics – the lyricist remains a joint owner of the musical work even if his/her lyrics are later removed.  

Although these are some of Copyright’s default rules for joint works, it is always a good idea for co-writers to enter into written collaboration agreement.  This is especially true if you want different fee splits or rights to apply.  

5) Anything to consider when recording and releasing a cover song?

Once an artist releases their musical work, anyone can create and distribute their own sound recording of the work (i.e. release a ‘cover’) as long they secure a mechanical license and pay the owner of the musical work a ‘mechanical royalty’ (currently 9.1 ¢ per copy of the song).  

Although this might sound complicated, it’s a fairly painless process that can be done online via Harry Fox Agency or others. As long as you secure that license you do not need the permission of the songwriter or publisher.  

And don’t forget, when you cover a song, you are the owner of the sound recording. You can register with the Copyright office. You can stop unauthorized duplications.  You can collect the SoundExchange royalties we discussed in question 1.  

But that mechanical license does not cover synchronizing the musical work to video.... Meaning? If you want to make a music video or if someone wants to license your sound recording for a film or commercial you are going to need permission and a sync license from the songwriter or publisher.  

Music copyright law can be an intimidating world, even for the well versed.

If you would like to dig deeper, I recommend starting with some of the resources at the US Copyright Office.

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Beau Stapleton is a music attorney in Los Angeles California representing a diverse collection of clients including producers, managers, artists, publishers, composers, writers, supervisors, music libraries, and digital content creators.  Prior to becoming an attorney Beau was a major label recording artist and the owner of a music publishing company.


Trap Camp Entertainment
Posted by Trap Camp Entertainment on Mar 25 2015 1:45 PM
great article guys
Dave Cool
Posted by Dave Cool on Mar 25 2015 1:46 PM
Great, glad you enjoyed it!
Og Sin Loc Blackburn Entertainment Portal
Posted by Og Sin Loc Blackburn Entertainment Portal on Apr 1 2015 7:44 AM
I love TuneCore for keeping it real
Brenda Jean
Posted by Brenda Jean on Apr 2 2015 12:15 PM
This is indeed a great article, and it was interesting news to me that a co-writer can license a work without approval of the other co-writer. Thank you, Dave and Beau. I still have a question that I hope you can answer: I sell digital downloads, via my website and major web outlets, of songs by other artists that I have covered. When I first released these recordings, I went onto the Harry Fox website and paid royalties for digital sales in advance, but I had no idea how much to pay. I also don't know how many copies of these have sold from various places. There seems to be no easy way to account for them, and no easy way to ensure that creators are getting paid for them. Please advise.
Dave Cool
Posted by Dave Cool on Apr 2 2015 1:02 PM
Hi Brenda, any outlet you sell digital music through should have some kind of reporting you can access. With Bandzoogle, you can access that through our Reports tab. If you use a digital aggregator (like TuneCore), they'll have a report for all stores the music is being distributed to. As for ensuring creators are getting paid, you could reach out to Harry Fox about how they process/send those payments.
Stephanie Falvo
Posted by Stephanie Falvo on Apr 13 2015 10:41 AM
Hi Brenda, My name's Stephanie and I work at HFA. Dave is correct, the digital outlets should provide reporting. If you are able to confirm you have exceeded the amount of licenses you purchased, we suggest purchasing additional licenses. If you used Songfile ( you can check the amount you purchased under "View My Licenses". Thank you for ensuring rights holders are compensated!
Dave Cool
Posted by Dave Cool on Apr 13 2015 12:34 PM
Thanks Stephanie!
Rufus Brown
Posted by Rufus Brown on Apr 13 2015 4:03 PM
Very imformative and well written....thanks guys!
Posted by BOGOFLO on May 12 2015 9:59 AM
Great.. the question is. .. when is my hit.. done.. ready to be registered? what If I decide to change a thing or 2 in the intro? Do I need to register another one?
Dave Cool
Posted by Dave Cool on May 13 2015 3:46 PM
BOGOFLO: My guess is that if you change/modify a song, you would have to register that new version.
Bhagmi Knott
Posted by Bhagmi Knott on May 31 2015 4:02 PM
Good overview... Getting technical, what if I arrange 10 tunes into an instrumental medley (no words) - do I need to identify who wrote the music (and lyrics?) of the oldest version of each one, via the big agencies' websites, then pay once if I want to publish my arrangement (even for free online), pay again each time I want to perform my arrangement, and pay again if I want to share any recordings of my arrangement? And each time pay separate fees for each of the 10 composers/lyricists? That's what most websites seem to imply, but it's quite daunting. Especially as some tunes seem to have hundreds of versions listed and it's hard to know which is the original.
sammy amirq
Posted by sammy amirq on Nov 13 2015 10:13 AM
hi i have a question can change my bank account @ mcsk?
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