"What is the best way to copyright your songs? My band is going to do a live streaming web show and I'm leery of playing original material over the web without it being copyrighted."
James, your composition is already "copyrighted" if you have recorded it. According to US copyright law, a song (i.e., a "work") is created when it is "fixed." That means, when you transcribe your song on paper or record it for playback, you automatically own the copyright to that work. You may print the circle-c copyright symbol on any copies of your compositon at this point.
However, in order to protect your copyright, I recommend that you register your copyright with the Library of Congress ("LOC") using one of the following methods:
- Electronic registration ($35 per work): Register and upload a copy of your work electronically at https://eco.copyright.gov/eService_enu/ (see a list of acceptable file formats here)
- Complete Form CO on your personal computer, print it out, and mail it along with a $45 check or money order and your deposit (i.e., one copy of your unpublished work or two copies of your published work). (Form CO is here, instructions are here, and a FAQ is here)
- Complete the old hardcopy Form PA, and mail it along with a $45 check or money order and your deposit. The LOC is phasing out these paper forms, so Form PA not accessible on the Copyright Office website; however, you may request that the LOC send you a copy of Form PA by postal mail here.
Certain attorneys have suggested as a money-saving strategy collective registeration of multiple works as a single work. Any registration is better than nothing, but I advise against it for a number of reasons. Most importantly, databases of works and ownership information are key. If you do not register each individual work with the Library of Congress, I am concerned that in the future, users of your song may not be able to find it in the LOC databases if it is listed under the title of a collection of works. If a user cannot find the work, it won't find its owner and your work may be deemed an "orphan work," which may entitle such users to make and distribute copies of your work without a license and not pay you until you can prove that the work is yours. Further, you may not be entitled to damages. Therefore, for maximum copyright protection, I suggest you register each work individually. However, this is just my opinion.
There is an easier and cheaper method to protect your copyright than LOC registration, but it won't offer you the same level of protection that a LOC registration offers: The so-called "Poor Man's Copyright," whereby you mail yourself a copy of your song and save the unopened envelope with the post office's date stamp intact to prove the date of the copyright. The Poor Man's Copyright is better than doing nothing (it can help prove you are innocent if someone accuses you of plagiarism), but there are at least two big problems with this method:
- If you have not properly registered your copyright with the Library of Congress, you will not be entitled to damages.
- As I mentioned above, I believe detailed databases of works and ownership information will be used in the future more than ever. If you do not register your work with the Library of Congress, users of your work may not be able to find its owner and your work may be deemed an "orphan work," which may entitle such users to make and distribute copies of your work without a license and not pay you until you can prove that the work is yours. Therefore, register your copyrights with the Library of Congress!
Next time maybe I will post about streaming royalties, since a lot of independent musicians like James are making their music publicly available this way.
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