How to Copyright your Music, Art, Poetry, etc

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Sunday, January 13th, 2013, 4:30am
Categories: Mouth Diarrhea

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Hey dudes,

A couple people have asked me how to go about copyrighting their music, so I've decided to share my knowledge on the subject. This information could easily be used to copy other forms of work, such as copyrighting your poetry, copyrighting your art, copyrighting your screen plays, etc.

Disclaimer


Before we begin, here is a legal disclaimer: This blog, and pretty much everything I say, write, and do, comes with no warranty, and is at your own risk. If you follow my advice, you are solely responsible for anything that happens, even if I've given totally incorrect/idiotic/spiteful/etc information. Use at your own risk! You've been warned!

Third Party Verification


Okay for starters, a lot of people always think they can simply mail themselves a package via registered mail, and keep it in a safe. The reasoning is that this would be proof that you were in possession of your music at a certain date, thereby enforcing copyright.

In my opinion, this is total bullshit.

Do you realize how easily you could tamper with the contents of that package? All I would have had to do is mail myself an empty envelope back in 1985, wait until Nirvana got huge, then steam open the envelope with a tea kettle, insert recordings of myself playing Smells Like Teen Spirit, and voila - I could sue Nirvana. After all, I would be in possession of an envelope, dated in the 80s, with myself singing their songs. This would prove I wrote them? Yes? No? Why not?

It's all about third party verification. I've heard stories of judges throwing out a self-mailed copyright (aka: poor man's copyright) for this very reason. In matters of proof, no one can be trusted. This is why companies get audited by third party accounting firms. People lie and cheat all the time.

Also, what if your accidentally break the envelope? What if you're transporting it somewhere, or moving it to a new safe, or you don't even have a safe and your dog eats it, or your house floods, or catches or fire, or you just lose it? Copyright Destroyed!

I believe I relied on this method of copyright until I eventually learned better, but now I'm glad I do it the right way:

Library of Congress


This is going to apply to copyrights in the United States, but I'll include some possible strategies for other countries later on in this blog. Basically the Library of Congress is this whole government setup that helps people copyright their work. The whole thing revolves around the idea of third party verification. You mail the library of congress a copy of your work, fill out a form, send them a check, and in return they'll watch over it for you. Also, they don't allow you to change your submission once its processed. You can't alter its contents, and this is where that third party verification comes in. A judge is much much much more likely to believe the Library of Congress when it says you had a copy of a song at a certain date, than yourself or your stupid friend.... and this alone is why its worth it.

I know the registration fee sucks, but at the same time... can you really put a price on not being ripped off?

What if another musician started passing off your work as their own, and made a bunch of money, then refused to admit you wrote it? It's happened before. I even met a guy once who was ripping off the entire live standup set of a fellow comedian, without the first comedian knowing.

And even worse, what if a company ripped you off? What if you got ripped off by a company with a huge lawyer budget? Do you really think you can sue them just by promising the judge you're telling the truth about owning a song? Nope... and that's why you need third party verification.

Can you imagine if someone ripped off your song, then realized you never registered it, then decided to register it themselves? They could potentially sue you from being able to use your own song! I realize that most songs aren't worth stealing ... even the good ones because unfortunately marketing and perception of value are more important nowadays... but still. You worked hard on your music. Isn't it worth protecting?

Reducing the Fees


Back in the day, I believe the fee was $30 or $35 bucks, but its gone up somewhat lately. There is also a new reduction you can get, by registering electronically instead of mailing it in.

!!However!! there is one method I used, to vastly reduce registration fees, at least on a cost-per-song basis. Basically they allow you to submit multiple works in the same registration. That would translate to paying the registration fee once, but copyrighting a bunch of songs at the same time, VS just copyrighting one at a time. The only downside to this is you need to sort of hoard your songs and not let anyone have them until you're ready to copyright a bunch at the same time. Back in the day I used to wait until I had 10 or 15 at a time, pay the $35 fee, and it would come out to less than $3.50 per song usually... that's really not a lot if you consider the protection your'e getting!

Copyright.gov


Start by going to Copyright.gov. That's the site for the Unites States copyright stuff. Read everything you can find there first, and when you're ready just download the forms, fill them out, and mail them in with your check and copies of your work. Last I read, there wasn't a strict guideline on how exactly to organize your work, so you'll have to wing it slightly. I usually just include a CD with my songs, write my name on the CD, and attach a home made "Table of Contents" page that explains what the title of each track is, and then I'll add in a Lyric sheet for each song too. I think probably a music sheet would be rad too, but I don't usually take the time to transcribe my music.

Also, if you're not 100% sure, you can email or call these dudes directly. It is SO worth it you guys.... being able to breathe a huge sigh of relief, knowing that your music is unstealable. So rad.

Form PA


Form PA is for anything in the "Performing Arts" category, ie: Music, Drama, Movies, Choreography, etc. When you use this form, you're copyrighting the concept itself, which is good if you're the original author, copyrighting something for the first time after it was written. So basically if you've just written something, you can probably use Form PA to seal your ownership of it.

Form SR


Form SR is for a literal sound recording of a work. The difference between this and PA, is an SR can be used to copyright a specific performance of something.

For instance, if you have permission to do a cover song (ie: direct permission, compulsory license, etc), you obviously can't own the original work... BUT!, you can own your performance of that work. That means the original author wouldn't be able to use your performance of their work, without your permission, and someone who already had permission to the original work, wouldn't automatically be able to use your performance without your permission as well. See the difference? Please note that if you're copyrighting SR on someone else's work, then you still need the original author's permission in the first place. It sort of creates 2 layers of required permission, in order to get to your version.

SR is also often used to copyright a performance and and the concept at the same time (meaning, filing SR can also count as PA at the same time, if the work wasn't previously copyrighted). So basically if you recorded your entire album already, and still didn't get around to doing a PA copyright on any of your songs, you can just file an SR form, and be covered for both the specific recording (that album), and the songs themselves too.

Also even say you were in a band. Say everyone in the band owned a song equally, so everyone had permission to do anything they wanted. If you recorded a solo version of one of the songs, you could file form SR on that version, and that would prevent your bandmates from taking ownership of it. Everyone would have ownership in the original song, but in order to use your performance, they would need both permission to the original song, and permission to your solo performance, which only you would own. Note that this isn't to say that they would be prevented from recording their own performance of that song. They only wouldn't have rights to your specific performance.

Get it?

Other Forms


There are other forms on the site as well, which you can use to copyright various other things. For instance, I believe form TX is for literary works, such as poetry, stories, books, etc. If you spend some time on the site, you can probably find the right form for the type of thing you're creating.

Non-US Copyrights


Copyright laws vary from country to country, of course. A lot of larger countries have copyright treaties with each other too. So for instance, people in the UK also wouldn't be able to steal your shit if you lived in the US.

I would do some research and find your country's website and do some heavy reading to figure out how copyright is handled in yours, but most do provide something basic, at least.

Extra Forms of Third Party Verification


I've seen horror stories where other countries provided shitty third party verification because they lost forms, failed to link submissions to a person's identity, allowed people to tamper, etc. Once I even heard of a country (I forget which one... but hey UK people!: is it the UK?) where all you can do is copyright the title of your song, but not actually send the actual song in!! Talk about crappy third party verification.

If your country does something like this, or you otherwise feel like you might be left vulnerable, you can try using other places to do some of your third party verifications. For instance... if your song is on iTunes... well, iTunes is a huge company, who probably won't make it easy to tamper with a release once it's been made, and who probably won't go out of business any time soon. So by releasing your song on tons and tons of digital distribution websites, you might sort of be getting that third party verification in a sneaky way. I'm sure it's not iron clad or anything, and probably comes with its own problems, but if I were in a lawsuit and didn't have any other way to prove I released a song by a certain date, I'd rather have an iTunes/Amazon/Napster/CDBaby webpage verifying it for me, than my stupid next door neighbor.

Conclusion


Anyway, that's pretty much all I know on the subject at this point in time, and it's served me well so far. Again, re-read my disclaimer above and if you're not 100% sure, consult a lawyer and/or an official representative of your country's copyright system, lol.

If you found this article useful, please help me out by sharing it with your friends, linking to it in your tumblrs and blogs and stuff, and generally letting people know where to find this article. You could be helping a friend in need!

lol

~Mike Peralta

Clarifications


Someone just asked me if you are able to copyright a rough/raw recording, or if you need to wait until you have a more produced/professional recording. The answer is no... form PA only copyrights the concept of your song - the lyrics, composition, arrangement, general idea, etc... so any quality recording will do, as long as it is clear enough to understand - this is also why I like to include lyric/chord sheets along with my copyright submission, and why you should also consider including full sheet music to your song as well.

Regarding form SR - just recording the specific performance - you would only be copyrighting the version you sent in, and not any future recordings you did. Keep in mind that since SR also automatically does a PA, this would be the same as copyrighting your song with a form PA, PLUS the specific recording you sent in.

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Mike Peralta is an independent musician and you should follow him on Twitter (@MikePeralta) and Instagram (@MikePeraltaMusic), then subscribe to his blog just a bit below this text!
Current avatar photo by Heinz von Bockelmann (CC by 2.0, modified by Mike Peralta)

Next in 'Mouth Diarrhea' : I just had the strangest dream... >>>


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Mike Peralta
Sunday, January 13th, 2013, 11:45pm
God damn it. I didn't mean for this one to trigger a subscriber alert... :-\
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