Copyright Basics for Songwriters

Should you copyright your song? If you're a songwriter, sooner or later you will probably have some questions about getting your material copyrighted. Since I've already been down this road before, you might be able to benefit from my experience. Though I am not an expert in the field, I do believe that I have some valuable information to share with you.

Having been online for over a year now, I've noticed that there seems to be a bit of confusion regarding the subject of copyrighting. A fairly common question among people who frequent songwriting forums is "How do I copyright my song?" which, of course, is quite understandable. Just imagine what it would be like to have one of your songs stolen, only to find out later that it grossed several hundred thousand dollars for some band you never even heard of. You might think that you would be able to console yourself with the idea that this only proves you can write a good song, but I doubt it. More than likely, you'd be pretty upset over the whole matter and want to take legal action. The sad thing is, most people never do prosecute because they don't have the money to hire an attorney. Even if they did, it's not likely to be an easy case to win without proof of copyright, and many would probably "lose their shirt", so to speak, in the process.

Nowadays, however, due to the popularity of the internet, people are sharing their original material as never before. Have you ever wondered if this is a safe thing to do? How does a copyright protect your material anyway?

Well, as far as the first question goes, I have found most people to be pretty trustworthy with regard to my own material. At least, nothing out of the ordinary has come to my attention yet. But that doesn't mean it can't, or won't. Then again, I took the steps to copyright and register my original songs with the Library of Congress prior to sharing them online.

What you need to realize upfront is that your song, or lyric, automatically obtains a legal copyright from the moment you put it down on paper with your signature and a date. But don't just take my word for it, read the following quote taken from the U.S. Library of Congress website:

"Copyright protection subsists from the time the work is created in fixed form. The copyright in the work of authorship immediately becomes the property of the author who created the work. Only the author or those deriving their rights through the author can rightfully claim copyright." ~ U.S. Library of Congress

When you register your song with the Library of Congress, they simply act as a witness to the fact that you are the author of the song. And, I guess if you need a witness, the federal government should be as good as any! But the Library of Congress does not and will not provide any legal defense for you in the event that your material is stolen. All they can provide in such a situation is the written and/or recorded version of the copyrighted material which you signed, dated and submitted to them. However, this documentation would be considered evidence in your favor and should stand up in any court of law.

Something else which I have done in the past and you might consider also, is to have my songs notorized. A Notary Repulic is another authorized government offical who will bear witness to your copyright claim by placing their seal and signature upon your work. This will be another means of providing proof that you wrote the song, should the need arise. And, just to be safe, why not put the notarized copy of your song in an envelope and send it to yourself in the mail? Though there are some people who don't think much of this practice these days, it certainly can't hurt. Besides, the U.S. Post Office is another branch of the federal government and thus a credible witness to your copyright. The date which is stamped on the front of the envelope provides further evidence of when you wrote the song. But be careful that you DO NOT OPEN the letter when you receive it! Instead, place it in a safety deposit box at the bank.

So, the important thing to remember when it comes to protecting your song, is being able to establish enough evidence via credible witnesses in order to verify the facts. The more the merrier, at least as far as your copyright is concerned, if you catch my meaning. Have fun and strut, I mean share, your stuff with others. You never know, the opportunities are boundless and you might just make the right connections out there. But I suggest that you do take the necessary precautions and protect your songs by obtaining a registered copyright through the Library of Congress. Afterall, it's your future.

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Kathy Unruh is a singer/songwriter and webmaster of ABC Learn Guitar. She has been writing songs and providing guitar lessons to students of all ages for over 20 years. For free guitar lessons, plus tips and resources on songwriting, recording and creating a music career, please visit: http://www.abclearnguitar.com

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