How to copyright your music as an artist?

For artists that write their own music, it is really important to have a good knowledge about songwriting contracts and copyright. A publisher that would like to own a single song, part of or your entire catalogue needs to draw up an agreement. It will stipulate whether it is for: part or full ownership of your copyright; permission to market and sell your works and take a negotiated cut accordingly; and/or administration of your catalogue. There is no such thing as a standard songwriting contract; no agreement is the same and there are clauses to watch for, especially the way a clause is worded. You will need a reputable music attorney to look over your contract before signing; that is the only thing that is standard!


Your rights

A male or Female Singers or band that writes a song owns the full copyright (if two or more musicians the percentage is split). When writing a song in a group, upfront sign a contract stating what the split is and have it stamped by the police or court – copyright equals money, so protect your work and earnings. To copyright a song or catalogue of songs that most basic way to do this is to post a copy self-addressed, do not open the package, ensure it is labeled with the list of songs, who the writers are and who owns what percentage then keep the receipt – somewhere safe. The copy of the song does not have to be fancy; it can simply be a guide version, a voice memo or audio file. Alternatively, join a music association like PRS to register your repertoire of music. Each song will need to have an International Standard Recording Code (ISRC) code – this is the code that tracks each song individually so that royalties can be paid to you.

Record label rights

When approached by a record label or publisher, this is when you will negotiate handing over all or some of your copyright. A songwriting contract defines in the way your copyright is transferred to a publisher and for what term of period they have time to do the job they need to do. It is an agreement of the songwriter giving the publisher full permission to market, publicize and earn money the song or library of songs. A publisher is a normally a corporation, like Universal Publishing, but also can be an established one-man-company that owns massive library of music to sell, license and promote professionally. The publisher is the agent of your songs and job is to pitch your song to various people in the music industry. Your song is the product and their job is to sell it. In order for a publisher to sell your product, it has to be something they believe in, plus it really needs to be fantastic with chart topping number-one quality. That way your song will be a priority to be placed accordingly. Releasing a single song, let alone album, can take years and years, so make sure it is a goodie. The selling includes distribution for CD and digital sales, radio airplay, licensing for commercials, TV and film.

The business part of the music industry

Understanding how the business part of the music industry is complex and you really need to know the in’s and out’s. There are three types of agreements: songwriter, co-publishing and administration. The publisher will take 100% of copyright ownership in a songwriter contract. For co-publishing deals a percentage of copyright is agreed, normally 50%. Administration deals do not transfer any copyright; it is merely for the publisher to manage your catalogue for a commission of the earnings, usually 15%.

Importance of copyrights

Always remember that your song is your product eventually will earn you money one day. It is a known fact that the real money in music is in earning royalties from copyright usage and live performance. Therefore bear in mind that it is really important to fight for your copyright – and fight for all of it. Of course the more established songwriter you are the less you will have to give away. So if you have a deal on offer, and you are just starting out, you just might need to part with some of your copyright to put one foot in the door. It’s a very small and closed industry, so if there is an open door then the suggestion is to walk right in with open arms. Make sure that the publisher that represents you is hungry and really believes in your song; otherwise it may sit in the library and not be used.

The start of a career

When starting out, your bargaining power will be weak, however also remember to limit how many songs you hand over to a publisher. It is not a bad idea to only allow a few songs to be contracted first off, for you to see how hard the publisher works at exposing your catalogue. The same goes for the term, which sets how long the publisher has to pitch your songs, try and keep it to a minimum – a good term to start with is one year with a renewal or extension option for another one or two years. The term is separate to the length of copyright. Copyright (depending on country) is usually 70 years from release or if not released then after the sound recording. To further protect your copyright, you can ask for ‘reversion’. This allows you to negotiate that the copyright is returned to you after the term or a few years after the term, especially if no major label has signed the song. A song unheard and unreleased is like throwing money down the drain.

The limits of copyrights

A songwriter, as copyright owner, has the legal right to terminate copyright after 35-40 years after the contract was signed without the publisher’s permission. From that point the copyright is reverted back so the songwriter can keep their copyright, or find a new deal, or re-negotiate a deal with the original publisher for the remainder of the copyright term, when the song or songs will become public domain. For termination the songwriter needs to write to the publisher two to ten years prior to 35 years after the date of the signed contract with the exact date of termination. Then the songwriter needs to file a copy with the Copyright Office. Therefore terminating any transfer of copyright.


In summary, hold onto copyright as much as possible – it is your money burner. Find and be contracted to a successful publisher that places your music – this is like finding gold dust. Work hard at everything music related, network and perform as much as possible to expose your songs, try and work with well-known songwriters to open opportunities with them – sign up to workshops that famous songwriters run to start with. And, most of all do not give up pitching your songs until you can hear Christina Aguilera singing your song, sitting at number one in Billboard Charts.

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