They Stole My Song!!! – Copyright, The Basics

Hi there and welcome back.

Some people are paranoid about sending out their music in case it gets stolen. In reality it’s a very rare thing. But what does it mean? Who owns a song?

When you write a song it is your copyright (i.e. only you have the right to copy it and make use of it) unless you assign that copyright to someone else (usually a music publisher but if writing music is your day job it could be your employer – knows as “work for hire”). If you are signed to a music publisher then likely your contract will automatically assign your copyright over to your publisher. Nowadays, in what are called 360 agreements, record companies are often taking a share too. – Beware!!

You cannot copyright a title, or a chord sequence. It’s what you do with the title and the chord sequence that gets the copyright.

To get the copyright on a song you must put it down in some physical or virtual form, i.e. it cannot be in your head only. This can be on paper, a word processor, a tape or digital recorder. In the UK, that’s it. In the US it needs to be registered with the Library of Congress (see below).

Although there is no formal registration process in the UK and some other countries, ultimately, if you can’t prove that you wrote it before the person you claim stole it, it is your word against theirs and the lawyers will love you for as long as your bank balance lasts. Therefore, registering the copyright independently is a good idea. If you are signed to a publisher they will take care of it.

There is a common fallacy about putting a copy of the song into a sealed envelope and mailing it to yourself recorded delivery and then not opening it. The claim is that, the date stamp of the signature will prove when you wrote it, but frankly this has never been tried in court and the moment the other person claims you steamed open the envelope and changed the contents your protection is doubtful.

The US Library of Congress above will accept submissions from non US residents and is very reasonable ($45 at the time of writing) and tracks/lyric sheets can be submitted either electronically online of by CD/DVD. If $45 for a song sounds expensive I should explain that this price is not necessarily per song. You can submit songs one at a time if you wish but it is far more cost effective to gather multiple songs into a “collection”, for example all tracks on an album, all non-album tracks in your back catalogue, etc. Each collection can then be submitted for a single fee.  You could even gather every song you’ve ever written into a “complete works” collection.

Sign up here

Let’s face it, a lawyer may claim you steamed open an envelope but not many will claim that you corrupted the US Library of Congress. Sadly, the lawyers will still usually find some technicality if they think there’s the chance of a payoff. Most cases are settled out of court because the legal costs can be ridiculous. So while it may not be foolproof (nothing ever is) it certainly gives you a good leg to stand on.

Technically the copyright in a lyric is separate from the copyright for the music, but once they are put together they are effectively treated as one. So if an instrumental version of a song is made the lyricist will still get paid and when the lyrics are printed the writer of the music should still get paid too. However, if there are multiple writers it may affect how the money is divided up.

For example, if 2 people write the music together but only one person writes the lyric the money split will be as follows:

Composer 1 gets 25% (half of the music share)

Composer 2 gets 25% (half of the music share)

Lyricist gets 50% (all of the lyric share)

If money is to be split differently (as is quite common – if you write in Nashville you will find that it is assumed that anyone in the room will be given a totally equal share of music and lyric regardless of actual contribution) all parties must agree to, for example a 33% split in the example above and it’s best to get it in writing. PRS, MCPS, Harry Fox, ASCAP, BMI and SESAC (see here for more on these) will ask for details of royalty splits when you register songs. But if what you say differs from what one of your fellow writers has claimed those lawyers are in the money again if you have nothing in writing.


A recording has its own copyright separate from the song. PRS/MCPS or your local equivalents will collect money for the song copyright (usually paid to the song writers or music publishers), while PPL or your local equivalent collects money for the recording copyright (usually paid to the singers, musicians and record companies).

This is one reason why people often re-record songs when they want to use them (lift music for example). Then they only have to pay one lot of copyright (to the songwriters) because they are now using their own recording.


Some of you probably make songs from loops and samples. There are rumours around that if the sample is short enough or if you’ve borrowed few enough notes it’s legal. This is not true. It doesn’t matter if it’s less than half a second, it’s illegal to use it without permission.

If you are going to sample, get the clearance (from the record company (recording) and the music publisher (song)) before you put it out there. If they think there is no chance of your song selling they’ll probably charge you peanuts. If it goes top 10 and you approach them after, they have you over a barrel and can charge you ridiculous amounts of money.

OK. So there you have some basics of copyright. We will be returning to the subject later so if you want to know more, watch this space. 😉 Good luck.






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