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Saturday Side Hustle: Copyright for Creators

If you are a songwriter, or really a creator of just about any kind of artistic content, you should understand something about copyright. The bar is pretty low: In the United States, if you have an original work of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, you have a copyright in that work. For songwriters, there are two types of copyrights to consider. You have a copyright in the composition you have created, which includes music, with or without lyrics. Since you have fixed the work in a tangible medium of expression, you have a copyright in the sound recording you have created.

With respect to each of these copyrights, you have the exclusive right to make copies of the work or phonorecords. “Phonorecords” may sound a bit antiquated, but it extends to multiple media, such as vinyl records, compact discs, and nowadays, downloads. You also have the exclusive right to distribute these and perform and display your work publicly. In the case of sound recordings, you also have the exclusive right to stream your work to the public. Last but not least, you have the exclusive right to prepare derivative works of your original work, but more on that later.

If you are sitting at home with your guitar and a tape recorder, and make a sound recording of your work with that tape recorder as I did when I was a kid, you have a copyright. These days maybe you have a digital audio workstation (“DAW”) and record the work onto the hard drive of your laptop. Either way, unfortunately, no one knows or cares.

This is where copyright registration – not to be confused with the underlying copyright – can come in handy. If you are the author of an original musical composition and have created a digital copy of it, for example, you can apply to register your copyright in that composition with the U.S. Copyright Office. You can find the registration portal here.

You will be asked whether you are registering a work of the performing arts or a sound recording. If you are the composer (and lyricist if there are lyrics), and you created the sound recording yourself, you can do both, but let’s start with the composition. You will need to give your work a title. You will be asked if your work has been published (more on that later). Assuming it hasn’t, you will need to provide the year of completion of the work.

You will then need to identify the claimant of the copyright, i.e., the owner. In this example that is also you, but it is important to understand that ownership and authorship are two different things. You can be the author of your composition and sell ownership rights in your work to another person, or a business, such as a record company. However, you are still the author, and you will be asked to provide your personal information as such, or a pseudonym if you prefer.

More on that later.

Author: Scott Lloyd, Esq.
Articles have been Reprinted with permission from the charlotte observer and Mike Hunter.

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