By, Wendy Day
A copyright is the proof of ownership that a songwriter, beat maker, or writer secures through the US Government as proof that they wrote and own a song or a portion of a song. It’s a filing that occurs via www.copyright.gov (or print the forms and file through the mail, if you prefer the old school way).
There is a fee for copyrights, which is why many artists do the “poor man’s copyright” and mail themselves a copy of the song using the unopened package’s postmark date as proof of when the song was created (most people sign their name across the envelope seal to prove the envelope was never opened). This is not the best solution, however.
Even though a “poor man’s copyright” holds up in court, it doesn’t allow the infringed party to get paid damages the way a US Copyright filing does. So do not depend on the poor man’s copyright instead of an official copyright.
If you’re going to take music seriously, you will need to invest in yourself and follow standard procedures. Nothing screams amateur more than not doing the basics: copyrights, trademarked name, business incorporated with a tax ID number and a business bank account, membership in a performing rights society if you are performing or getting radio play, and being signed up to SoundExchange.
Since this is a very basic overview, I suggest you check out more information about what a copyright is, and what can be copyrighted at http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ01.pdf.
The copyright office charges $55 for an electronic filing of a song that has more than one owner (if lyrics and beats are separate owners, or work for hire) or $35 for a filing of one person who wrote both the lyrics and the music. For you old schoolers, the cost is $85 if you use a paper form for filing (not online). You use the “standard application form” on or off line. A record label files the SR form for the copyright in the sound recording. If you are the record label and the artist, you’d own both the performance and the sound recording copyrights.
Here are the overview instructions for the standard application form: http://www.copyright.gov/eco/eco-tutorial-standard.pdf.
You can send in bodies of work for copyright but they do not encourage that. The general rule is one registration for one work. However, you can register an unlimited number of unpublished works together as a collection with one form and one fee, as long as they are all by the same person or same people (see page 9 at http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ01.pdf).
Registration of an unpublished “collection” extends to each copyrightable element in the collection. We encourage you to provide a collection title and provide the individual items as contents titles on your application. You may want to also include a cover page and a contents title page for your collection.
Please advise if the works have been published. For the statutory definition of publication, see page 3 at http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ01.pdf. The standard application is used when registering your works electronically and the filing fee is $55.00 per application. Processing times for claims filed electronically is currently taking up to 8 months, but your work is copyrighted from the moment it’s uploaded to the Copyright Office.
If you choose to send the CDs via mail instead of uploading the songs, I suggest sending the CDs via a service that can be tracked (UPS, FedEx, or Express Mail via the post office). Retain all print outs and receipts. It may take 8 months or more to receive the copyright papers to prove ownership, but your songs are copyrighted from the moment they are received by the copyright office (hence the tracking receipt).
The Copyright Office website is at www.copyright.gov. The phone number is 877-476-0778 (toll free) or 202-707-5959. The email address for information and questions is firstname.lastname@example.org. The street address is:
U.S. Copyright Office
Attn: Public Information Office-LM401
101 Independence Avenue, S.E.
Washington, DC 20559-6000
So, let’s use as an example that I have 45 songs that I wrote and produced myself. Then I have 5 with other producers: 2 are with Metro Boomin, 1 is with Just Blaze, 1 is with DJ Mustard, and 1 is with Sonny Digital. What’s the cheapest way (not the best way, but the least expensive) to register these with the US Copyright Office (NOT the poor man’s copyright)? Answer in the comment section…
[Addition 10.8.16 — from a Copyright Alliance article dated September 30, 2016:
“This week, in an update to its 2012 study, the U.S. Department of Commerce — in conjunction with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the Economics and Statistics Administration — released a new report, Intellectual Property and the U.S. Economy: 2016 Update, which looks at the value that “IP-intensive industries” contribute to the U.S. economy. The report zeros in on patent, trademark, and copyright-dependent industries, focusing on job creation, income, and gross domestic product (GDP)” putting the value at an “impressive $954 billion.”
“The study, which defines copyright-intensive industries as “those primarily responsible for the creation or production of copyrighted materials” found that these industries are directly responsible for 5.6 million jobs in the workforce, and indirectly responsible for an additional 2.8 million jobs. Not only is copyright creating jobs, its creating jobs that pay well. In 2014, workers outside of IP industries were earning, on average, $896 per week. Within copyright-intensive industries, this number nearly doubles to roughly $1,701. What’s most impressive, though, is the monetary value that these industries add to the economy as a whole. According to the report, 5.5% of the GDP — or $954 billion — is attributable to industries that rely on copyright.”]