Questions About Copyright

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If your compositions and mixes have gotten to the point where you might make a cent off of them one day, it’s time to start thinking about registering a copyright. The United States Copyright Office has just about everything you’d need to know about copyright registration on their website.

Of course, like many places on the web with a lot of information, it also has everything you don’t need to know. So we’ve sifted through a desert of facts, and narrowed down the few major questions you’d have as a musician or producer.

When do I own the copyright?

You already own the copyright of any song you’ve put into a tangible form. This includes a sound recording, written lyrics, or sheet music. When you send your piece to Washington, you aren’t actually copyrighting it, you’re registering that you own the copyright with the federal government.

Let’s say you own a blue convertible, and it gets stolen. You end up in court with the person who stole your car, and the judge asks you, “Can you prove this is your car?” Would the correct answer be:

a. “This blue convertible is mine! I know because it has a sticky glove compartment door, and the oil needs changing!”
b. “Yes, I can. Here is my DMV-issued registration, with a matching Vehicle Identification Number.”

Obviously, you owned the car before you registered it. The registration proves that you own it and holds up in court. It’s the same thing with a song. You own the copyright right now, your registration proves that you own it. You can’t file a lawsuit or take anyone to court over your song without the copyright being registered.

How much does it cost to register a copyright?

At the moment, it’s not all that expensive, and it can all be done online. The rate for registering a sound recording at the time of this writing is $35 (USD), if done online. You can still apply for a copyright the old-fashioned way with snail mail, but the process is slower and costs you a lot more. The only reason you would use the Post Office instead of your ISP is if you didn’t have internet access.

Which would surprise me, at the very least.

What about the “Poor Man’s Copyright?”

The Poor Man’s Copyright refers to sticking a recording or piece of written material in anĀ envelope, and mailing it to yourself. The logic behind this method, is that if the Post Office stamps a date on an envelope, coming from your address, they serve as a federal government witness to the fact that the work belongs to you.

The U.S. Copyright office has this to say about the Poor Man’s Copyright: There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.”Copyright FAQ, Copyright in General.

There are still a few websites that endorse this method. These are stupid websites run by stupid people, and you shouldn’t listen to them. The Poor Man’s copyright doesn’t work.

How long does the process of registering take?

According to the Copyright office’s website, it takes about 2.5 months to process an electronic application, as of this writing. The length of time changes based on how many applications the office is receiving. You can view the current estimated time here.

Can someone fraudulently register my work as their own, and get away with it?

I emailed the copyright office with the same question. This was their response:

“It is possible. We would not know. You can always make your own registration.”

Personally, I’m going to take that as a “yes”.

I have this one track, but I’m not sure it’s worth copyrighting. Would you guys listen to it and give me some feedback?

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You can get your copyright registration started at