Co-writing and Copyrighting
Q: Alan from Boston, MA asks: Should I copyright my songs?
A: I believe you mean to ask, “Should I register my songs with the United States Copyright Office?” because technically your songs are already copyrighted when you write them. Once you write your song down or record it, your song is in fact copyrighted. Registering these songs is just one method of proving these songs are yours. It’s currently $35 to register each song or a collection of songs. As you’ve read in my book, you will possibly need to write hundreds of songs before seeing a career in music. At bare minimum you will likely write several dozen. This could get expensive, and possibly unnecessarily so.
That said, in all my years in the business, I’ve never known of someone stealing a song, ever. Furthermore, careers are made from multiple songs, not one single song. So if you’re lucky enough to write a song that someone steals and turns into a hit, not only will you be the first case I’ve ever seen of this happening, you likely have 50 more where those came from. Consider yourself blessed that you possess the ability to write a successful song and know that you are able to write more.
I’m not suggesting you leave your car unlocked for anyone to rummage through and steal your belongings, I just don’t want you to worry about the wrong things. Worry about how to write a great song first. And know that you’re more likely to get struck by lightning four times in the same day than you are to have your song stolen.
Most cases of copyright infringement are high-profile cases where people claim a big artist has stolen their song. I would venture to say most of these claims are frivolous and hold very little merit. Yes, there probably are documented cases of songs being legitimately stolen, it’s just extremely uncommon.
My suggestion is to keep good records of the songs you write. Demo and record as many as you can, mostly for creative reasons, but also so that you can have good proof that you wrote the song should it ever come to question. Again, it’s unlikely it ever will. But rather than spending a bunch of money registering your first 100 songs, I’d prefer you spend that time and effort refining your craft. If lightning ever does strike you four times in one day, consider yourself lucky – you, my friend, know how to write a great song and are one of the few. In which case, go write some more and build a career off of that.
Q: Natasia from Sacramento, CA asks: Before I collaborate with other musicians on an original song project, should I get something in writing first?
A: Getting things in writing is always helpful but don’t let it stand in the way of the creative process.
It’s good to discuss things like: How do you plan on splitting the songwriting, percentage-wise? If you record, who owns the recordings?
Although getting things in writing is good, I caution artists to not get too caught up in the legalese of the music business before they even create a great product. Cover the basics up front, but don’t be afraid to dive right in to making great music when the opportunity strikes.
I once received a phone call from a musician who said, “Okay, so we hired a lawyer and incorporated our band. We are an LLC. We have a Federal Tax ID # and have opened a bank account. Our operating agreement has been notarized and we are service and trademarking our name. What else should we be doing?”
“Uh… well, that’s great, I guess. Sounds like you’ve got your ducks in a row. Why don’t you send me some of your music and we’ll go from there,” I said.
“Oh, we haven’t started the writing process yet. But as soon as we do, we’ll send you some material,” the band member responded.
Don’t go to these extremes. Sure, it’s good to discuss things in advance but don’t get ahead of yourself. First make sure you’ve got the right musicians and songwriters to create brilliance. Afterwards, begin to talk about the business of your music. Without the brilliant music, none of the business matters.
ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC?
A quick search on the Internet will lead you to any of these organizations. They are Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) that oversee the royalty collection for your songs. In the early stages of your career, when there are no real royalties to be collected, these PROs can be a valuable center of resources. They have endless opportunities and information available to their members.
Get involved. Go to music conferences and get to know people from these organizations. Choose one and sign up. You’ll be amazed at the amount of information that can be found through PROs.
Which one is better than the other? Ask a dozen successful songwriters and you’ll likely get an equal split as to their preference on which PRO is best. They’re all good in their own unique way. Spend some time reading about and learning about each. Ask fellow musicians which PRO they belong to. Do your homework, but get signed up with one of them. Signing up for a PRO as a writer is free.