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Managing and Protecting Your Rights: Copyrights for Music Composers


For composers and songwriters, your creative works represent both artistic passion and potential livelihood. That’s why understanding how to leverage copyrights to protect your rights and income is so crucial. Learning the ins and outs of music copyright registration, monitoring infringements, enforcing your rights and properly administering works through publishing deals and performing rights organizations enables you to fully capitalize on your catalog while defending against unauthorized uses. Use this guide to make copyrights an asset that supports your career.

Music Copyright Basics

Copyright law protects original works of authorship like songs and compositions. As creator, you automatically hold certain exclusive rights, but formal registration and administration provide key advantages:

Automatic Protection

Your copyright exists the moment you fix a work into tangible form like sheet music or a recording.


While not required, registering the copyright via the U.S. Copyright Office enhances abilities to enforce rights and seek damages.


You can administrate rights yourself or partner with publishing companies and PROs to assist.

Protectable Elements

Copyright extends to lyrics, melodies, rhythms, song structures and other compositional elements.

Infringement Defense

Copyright facilitates pursuing remedies against unauthorized reproductions, distributions or public performances of works.

While automatic, leveraging copyrights strategically unlocks their full potential.

Registering Copyright

Though your rights exist upon creating new works, formal registration with the U.S. Copyright Office provides meaningful benefits:

Public Record

Registration creates an official public record of your copyrighted work and your ownership claim.

Legal Standing

In infringement lawsuits, registration establishes validity of the copyright for stronger legal standing and broader remedies.

Statutory Damages

Only possible if works were registered before infringement occurred.

Filing Requirements

Either file an online application and upload the work or mail physical copies.


You can register published or unpublished works at any point, but earlier has advantages.

While not mandatory, prompt copyright registration is advisable once you complete new compositions.

Performing Rights Organizations

Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC provide valuable copyright administration services to songwriters:

Royalty Collection

PROs ensure you receive performance royalties whenever your songs get played on radio, TV, streaming platforms or live.


Joining a PRO registers your catalog in their database to facilitate royalty payments.


PROs continuously monitor public performances of members’ works across all relevant formats.


Collected royalties are distributed to you and any co-writers/publishers.

This passive income stream is vital for songwriters. Signing up early also establishes public records of your growing catalog.

Co-Publishing Deals

Songwriters sometimes partner with established publishing companies through co-publishing deals to administer copyrights. Typical arrangements:

Split Ownership/Rights

You assign part ownership (often 50%) to the publisher in exchange for their services.

Administrative Services

Publishers handle registering copyrights, collecting royalties, licensing for sync placements, taking down infringements, etc.

Upfront Payments

Publishers often provide advances against future royalties earned.

Creative Development

Some provide feedback to refine songs or match you with co-writers.

For new songwriters, co-publishing jumpstarts passive royalty streams while adding infrastructural support.

Protecting Compositional Elements

Copyright law recognizes these core compositional elements specifically:


The sequenced pitches that form the tune.


The words and poetic substance of songs.


The cadence and syncopation of beats.

Song Structures

The arrangement of sections like verses, choruses, bridges.


Supporting chords and instrumental parts.

Expressive Elements

Style, phrasing, articulations that distinguish your rendition.

Familiarize yourself with key elements assess infringement risks.

Enforcing Copyright Against Infringement

Despite protections, composers sometimes encounter infringements of rights. Options to address unauthorized uses include:

Direct Engagement

Polite, good faith efforts to resolve issues directly with minimal legal involvement.

DMCA Takedown Notices

For online infringement, request takedowns per the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Cease and Desist Letters

Have a lawyer send formal notice demanding the infringer stop illegal uses.


Taking defendants to court over copyright damages and disgorgement of profits.

Registration Requirements

To recover statutory damages and attorney fees in lawsuits, works must have been registered before infringement occurred.

Vigilant monitoring helps spot instances of infringement early so they can be addressed promptly.

Typical Copyright Infringements

Common scenarios that constitute infringement of compositional rights include:

Unauthorized Recording Covers

Others recording their own version of your song without permission/payment.

Sampling Without Clearance

Using even short excerpts of your music in new sound recordings unlicensed.

Sync Licensing Breaches

Placing your music in ads, films or videos beyond the scope of agreed synch licenses.

Illegal Distribution

Making copies or digitally distributing your sheet music or sound recordings without consent.

Live Performance Infringement

Bands or venues publicly performing your songs live without paying royalties.

Lyric/Melody Theft

Deceptively similar lyrics or melodies clearly derived from your original compositions.

Stay vigilant about monitoring how/where your catalog is exploited.

Typical Remedies Against Infringers

When pursuing action over copyright disputes, possible remedies include:

Monetary Damages

Seeking actual damages plus disgorgement of any profits the infringer earned from the infringement.

Statutory Damages

Standard ranges from $750-$30,000 per infringed work without having to prove actual damages.


Court orders barring unauthorized uses upon threat of legal penalties.

Impounding of Infringing Materials

Court ordered surrender and destruction of illegally reproduced copies and related assets.

Attorney Fees

In some cases, the losing party may pay your legal costs.

Seeking legal counsel helps pursue the maximal remedies available under law.

Fair Use Doctrine

Fair use permits limited re-use of copyrighted works without permission under certain conditions:

Transformative Nature

Altering the excerpted content to new purposes like parody or commentary.

Amount Used

Just small portions, not substantial ones.

Impact on Commercial Value

No negative impact on the marketability of the original work.

Educational/Non-Profit Use

For teaching, scholarship, news reporting etc. rather than commercial gain.

But for outright reuses in sound recordings, fair use rarely applies. Get licenses.

Administering International Copyright

With digital music distribution, compositions easily cross borders. Be sure to administer copyrights globally:

Berne Convention

167 member countries recognize copyrights from other participating nations.

Local Performing Rights Organizations

Administer public performance royalties in foreign markets through PRO equivalents.

International Standard Works Codes

Get ISWC codes to identify compositions across global registries.

International Licensing

Authorize foreign publishing administrators or PROs to license usages in relevant territories.

With the right partnerships abroad, you can monitor foreign licensing and collection much like domestically.

Using Copyright Notice

Placing visible copyright notice on your works helps deter infringement and signals your ownership:

© Symbol, Name, Year

Standard notice format: © Your Name 2023

Streamlined Language

“All rights reserved” or similar

On Both Works and Packaging

Include on artwork, liner notes, sheet music, masters, etc.

Digital Metadata

Embed copyright details into music file metadata fields.

Prominent copyright branding cements your composer credit and ownership status.

Managing Split Copyrights

On co-written songs, copyright law recognizes divided ownership interests:

Document Splits in Writing

Formal split sheets detail percentages owed to each contributing writer. Get signatures.

Register Share

When registering copyright, indicate the fractional share you own.

Account for Shares in Licenses/Royalties

PROs etc. allocate royalties by documented split percentages.

Permission Needed from All

Exploiting the work commercially requires agreement from all co-owners.

Proper splits documentation prevents discrepancies about ownership interests.

Transferring Copyright Interests

Copyright rights can be wholly transferred or assigned from one party to another through formal agreements:


Agreements can transfer exclusive rights or just non-exclusive usages.

Full/Partial Assignments

Rights can be assigned entirely or limited by time, territory, medium etc.

Royalty Conditions

Assignors often retain rights to receive royalties and credit.

Record Requirements

Copyright transfers must be memorialized in a signed written agreement.

Termination Clauses

Allows authors to eventually terminate assignments after a defined period.

While transferring rights can provide upfront income, only surrender specific rights for defined periods to retain leverage long-term.

Protecting Unpublished Works

Unpublished works enjoy stronger copyright protections than published ones:

Registration Requirements

Unpublished works don’t need to be registered to sue for infringement.

Statutory Damages

Possible even without registration for unpublished works infringed.

Public Domain

Unpublished works are exempt from public domain due to non-renewal.


Unpublished works remain under copyright for the author’s lifetime + 70 years.

Balance exploiting compositions commercially with maintaining some as unpublished for added legal protections.

Using Caution with Covers

While covers don’t require full permission and licensing like sampling does, take care to avoid infringement:

Don’t Copy Master Recordings

Only use underlying compositions, not original recorded renditions.

Pay Publishing Royalties

Covers still require payment of royalties to publishers/PROs.

Credit the Writers

Properly credit the composers of any work you cover.

Avoid Lyrics Changes

Modifying lyrics risks infringement without consent.

Don’t Imply Endorsements

Don’t suggest approval or endorsement of covers by original artists absent permission.

Legally covering others songs requires adhering to key guidelines.


Leveraging copyright effectively is as vital for musicians as honing your craft. Register new works promptly, monitor uses diligently, defend against infringement, transfer rights strategically, and partner with publishers/PRO’s thoughtfully. Treat copyrights as the assets they are so you can both profit from your creations and protect their integrity for the long run.


By Dani Davis

Dani Davis is the pen name of the writer of this blog with more 15 years of constant experience in Content marketing and informatics product, e-commerce niche.

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