You Can’t Copyright An Idea (And Other Copyright Thoughts)

Man vs. PRO

Do you copyright ALL of your songs?  Or NONE of them?  Does it even matter?

Here are a few of my thoughts and experiences on the topic of song copyrights.

A lot of songwriters get scared and think they have to copyright a song before showing it to anyone (I used to be that guy).  I’ve learned that’s usually a waste of time.  Most songs will never make a dime, so it doesn’t make sense to copyright songs that don’t make any cents.  You’re paying to protect something that doesn’t have economic value.

copyright sense cents

When I worked at Bluewater Music, we couldn’t send off a copyright form until the day the album was released.  We already kept records to prove date of creation (keep your notebooks and cowrite calendars, boys and girls), and we didn’t want to spend money on the copyright fee until we knew the song was actually released and would make some money.

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I’ve always seen every writer on every song listed as “author of words and music” – even if one cowriter “only” wrote the lyric or “only ” wrote the melody.  The truth is, you BOTH signed off on BOTH the melody AND the lyric.  To make a big deal about who wrote the melody and who wrote the lyric on a copyright would look unprofessional and amateurish (based on my Nashville experience- NYC or LA might do it differently).

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The writers of a song own the copyright once its written down or recorded (work tape), based on a 1976 copyright law.  Registering the copyright with the Library of Congress doesn’t give you the copyright (you already own it), but it does register that copyright and help prove ownership.

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You can’t copyright an idea.  If another songwriter hears your song (or mine) at a writer’s night and wants to hijack your song’s premise for their own song… there’s nothing we can do about it.  The good news is that most songs never make a penny, so it’s likely to be a “crime” without a consequence.  (With good news like this, who needs bad news???)  The other good news is that you must be on the right track with your song if you actually have something that someone wants to “steal.”  Keep on writing!

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You can’t copyright a title.  I think there are rare exceptions for songs like “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” or a few other iconic songs.  (And nobody’s gonna cut YOUR version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” anyway.  They don’t want to do all that explaining… “No, it’s not THAT song.  It’s a different one… sorry.”)  Odds are, you’ve written the same titles as many other songwriters already, and that’s not a legal problem.

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You can’t prove copyright infringement without proving that the alleged “thief” had access to your song.  If Big Artist Billy comes out with a song very similar to one of yours – but you can’t prove that Big Artist Billy ever heard your song before writing his, you’re not going to win in court.  You simply can’t copy a song you’ve never heard.  Chalk it up to a coincidence.

copyright access

In the US, a copyright lasts until 70 years after the last author (writer) has died.  After that, the song enters the public domain.  So, if you write an evergreen hit (like a big Christmas song), your great-great-grandkids could get royalty checks as part of a family inheritance!

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If you have a publishing deal or a publishing administrator, they will handle the copyright registration for you.  If you don’t have one of these, it’s up to you to do it.

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I’m not an expert on copyright law.  ALWAYS do your own homework.  One source of good advice and information is Amanda Williams at Songwriting and Music Business.  She’s good people, and she stays up on this stuff- and teaches it.  You can find her at www.songwritingandmusicbusiness.com.   Tell her, “Brent says hey.”

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I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  Do you have any copyright tidbits to add? Please leave a comment!

If you want to become a songwriting pro (in how you think, write songs or do business), then a great place to start is RIGHT HERE.  I want to help you on your songwriting journey.  I’ve been in the music business for years, and I’m here to help you get the cuts – and avoid the bruises.  CLICK HERE TO START HERE.

God Bless and Enjoy the Journey,

Brent

Brent Baxter is a hit songwriter with cuts by Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Lady Antebellum, Joe Nichols, Gord Bamford, Ruthie Collins, Ray Stevens, and more. He’s written a top 5 hit in the US and a #1 in Canada… so far.

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10 thoughts on “You Can’t Copyright An Idea (And Other Copyright Thoughts)”

  1. What are your thoughts if you are sole author of a work that own authorship of music and lyrics then it goes into a cowrite with two other cowriters that only make lyric changes in the cowrite, and in doing so then officially have two versions of the song.
    1 Sole Authorship version, music and lyrics…
    2 Then you have your cowriters version of the song that would serve as your revised work of your original…
    And I guess my last question is, since I’m not the one who submitted for the copyright as a registered work but the person who submitted for it like your cowriting partner then lies on his submission giving himself authorship he nor his partner is entitled to pertaining to authorship of music…
    Then refuses to correct his copyright submission from an SR Form to a CA Form…
    This then becomes a legal issue, even if the song isn’t getting any cents, it’s still a legal issue that should be corrected without hesitation.

  2. I opened my own publishing company. I don’t copyright, I publish and establish my own right to my music.

  3. You know Brent, considering how the public at large has been brainwashed into thinking that our hard work as songwriters/publishers (both in today’s digital age) it’s bad enough that the public thinks it should be free, so why is it that every suggestion you make for us (the songwriters) requires paying some kind of fee for access to information on important matters like Copyright? Protection of Intellectual Property? Etc. Sure would be nice if one or more of these orgs that are here to help us could or would not charge us a fee?

  4. Great article, Brent!

    I’m curious if you have any advice for those of us who are interested in putting our music online. Strictly speaking, those of us who do not have writing or recording contracts. I understand that someone might “steal” a song idea, but are there any other fears we should have?

    Also, I typically write my lyrics on my computer of phone, and use Voice Memo to make quick demos when I’ve completed each one. Is this good practice, or is there something better I could be doing to help myself in any way?

    Thank you, and thanks for a great read!

  5. Library of Congress/Copyright is super simple. 35.00 bucks, 10 songs, a year for them to process the song project, and each song is copyrighted. It took me all of 20 minutes to go that route. Super easy, and you get your case number on your songs. Working on the next ten songs currently. Getting Published is the real issue, and getting the songs sold obviously are a songwriters goal, as I see it.

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