Written by attorney Bruce E. Burdick

Cheap Copyright Protection

A common question any copyright attorney gets frequently is "how much does it cost to copyright a song" [or book, or video, or painting, etc.] Copyright protection for a song (both the composition and the sound recording) arises automatically whenever the song is fixed in a tangible medium of expression (such as written music, written lyrics -together called the composition- or a sound recording-called a "master"- of the song). Separate copyright protection exists for the composition itself (generally words-called "lyrics" and music or "score", such as sheet music) and sound recordings of the composition (sometimes called master recordings or "master"). If the composition and sound-recording are used in a music video, there is a third automatic separate copyright protection for the video. The master is a derivative of the composition and the video is usually a derivative of the master. although Copyright protection arises automatically and there is no need to register to get it, but that protection is limited in the US by the registration system administered by the Library of Congress's "US Copyright Office". Under U.S. copyright law (and the law of some foreign countries) registration is extremely important if you want to enforce your copyright. You need to register (a) within 3 months of publication or (b) before any infringement to get full benefits of registration. You cannot file suit to enforce your copyrights against infringers until you register or pre-register. Pre-registration followed by registration (a) within 3 months of first publication of the song or (b) no later than 1 month after first learning of an infringement gives you the right to collect statutory damages and attorneys fees from infringers. Most works are not pre-registered, but if the work will remain unpublished for long and infringement is thought possible while unpublished, pre-registration is important. Statutory damages are critical to most infringement cases because actual damages or profits from infringement are hard to prove and even if proven are often very low. Most courts hold that once you register, you can get statutory damages and attorneys fees for infringements that occur thereafter, but that rule is not universally accepted. The right to statutory damages and attorneys fees is what makes your copyrights valuable, so registration is the key to valuable copyrights. Copyright protection is a fantastic bargain. It's CHEAP but yet the protection lasts about a century, specifically for 70 years after the death of the author of the music and you get to recoup the rights after a certain period if you have assigned them to a publisher or label and want them back. You can register your song (composition) or sound recording (master) for just $35 in Government fees. Attorney fees will be determined by time, and are often lessened by use of paralegals for the time consuming portions of the online application process. For the first few times, you certainly should use an attorney. If you pay close attention to the process (sit beside the attorney or paralegal and watch if they will let you), soon you will be competently preparing your own applications for registration. Check with your attorney for any questions, as you do not want any mistake that would prevent recovery of statutory damages. You can even register an album of songs as a collection but this has serious disadvantages. For example, if you register 12 songs as a collection, you can only get one award of statutory damages of from $200- $750-$150,000 for willful infringement of the album, where as if you register each song separately you can get 12 separate awards of from $750 to $150,000 or a total award of $9,000- $1.8 million. Maximum damages are seldom awarded, so raising the minimum from $750 to $9,000 is very significant and should be reason enough to separately register the songs.

You might plan to have your own "record label". Before operating a record label safely you need to know much about the world of music law, music publishing, and music licensing. There are customs and practices that rule the industry and if you don't know them, those that do will quickly brand you as a novice and thus an unreliable partner and thus just show you the door. You will face financially disastrous economic consequences unless you get up to speed on these areas. Further, you need to work closely with intellectual property/music counsel to guide you through the process and to keep those you will deal with honest. There are few ethics in the music business, except to follow the customs and practices when dealing with pros and to realize that blockbuster artists get special deals. You need written agreements with the managers, agents, publishers, labels, distributors, songwriters, artists and producers for each song you release, and these written agreements are critical for determining ownership of copyrights and the splits of revenues generated from the compositions and recordings and videos. You also need to learn how to list your songs properly with the performing rights organizations or "PROs" (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, Sound Exchange - each has their niche, although there is a good deal of overlap) and taking steps to maximize the stream of revenues from your work through digital distribution (iTunes is now the biggest distributor of music, with Amazon MP3, Spotify and new entry Google Play is rapidly growing). If your record label is based on CDs, you are in a dieing market. Any successful record label will build a close relationship with outside music counsel, because music counsel often control the actions of the stars, and the vast majority of record labels (even small indie labels with hits), have in-house legal counsel. There is a good reason why so many of the legends among music producers and music label executives have law degrees---the music business is all about law, particularly copyright law, and failure to lay the proper legal foundation usually leads to a failed record label. Ask any successful music industry professional (whether artist, band, or producer) and he or she will tell you that his music lawyer is a key to success. If your lawyer is a musician or has a love of music, all the better. If your lawyer has long experience in the music industry, that experience generates contacts and connections and familiarity with the customs and how they vary from situation to situation and company to company and artist to artist. There are established norms, but if you are a big enough star, you get to establish your own norms, because everyone wants and needs you because of your fans and the money you command.

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