Copyright for musicians: fact vs fiction

Copyrighting music is a minefield. So what do you need to know?


One of the biggest questions new musicians face is the question of copyright — not whether they should do it (it’s obviously a no-brainer decision to protect your latest hit track from becoming someone else’s hit), but rather how they can.

The most commonly recommended form of copyright is flatteringly known as “Poor Man’s Copyright“. This involves recording a copy of your track (recording every individual instrument line as well if you want to be extra precautious), writing down notation for the instrument parts, including something that signifies you as being the creator, and then mailing it to yourself via recorded delivery. Once you’ve signed for it, store it (unopened) in a safe place and this will be proof of ownership.

The purpose of this practice is to demonstrate that you are the creator of the piece should anybody steal it and claim it as their own, supposedly beinhg indisputable proof of ownership in the instance of a legal battle. At some point, every musician is given this golden piece of advice.

Unfortunately, Poor Man’s Copyright is a complete lie.

There’s never been any instances of this form of copyright ever being used, or upheld, in court. That’s not to say it wouldn’t necessarily work, but putting your faith in something with no evidence of it working is as irresponsible as not copyrighting at all. In essence, that’s exactly what you are doing.

Sadly, this myth is perpetuated even by established and trustworthy bodies such as the PRS. Though there is a chance that it may be upheld and it may be enough to reinforce ownership claims, is it really worth the risk?

The only definite way to protect your songs from theft is to have them registered through the copyright office. This is a relatively inexpensive process ($35 US per song), but the cost can sometimes be daunting if copyrighting an album’s worth of songs at once. But if your song is really that good, this shouldn’t be much of a concern.

The real question is: is your song actually that good?

Think about it carefully. Any copyrighting process — even through special delivery to yourself — can be costly if you rush into it and need to continuously repeat the process. Finalise your track into the best it can possibly be and, once you’re completely happy with it, copyright it so it’s you who receives the royalties.

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