The copyright is the bedrock of show business. Most paperwork involves the licensing of copyrights. CDs, DVDs, and other distribution rights involve the trading of copyrights. A copyright is a claim of ownership and exclusive rights to intellectual property.
Copyrighting a song is easy. Just write a song and say your own it. Boom. You now own 100% of the copyrights to the song. However, what do you do if someone else claims they wrote the song? Moreover, what if that person recruits a few friends to lie and say that they made it up first?
Register your copyright with the United States Library of Congress. This creates a legal timestamp to your claim of ownership. Since copyright is a first come first served intellectual property, the first party to register owns the IP forever. This is necessary if your song is going to be bought and sold on a large scale. You can do this at www.copyright.gov. You’ll need to fill in forms PA and SR. Copyrights last for the life of the author plus 75 years. So, a copyright put into effect today will likely last until the next century.
When you listen to music on the radio you’re actually listening to 2 separate copyrights. First, the songwriter or composer has a copyright on the intellectual property (Form PA). Second, the artist performing the song has a copyright on the performance of the music (Form SR). So, merely filing a song with the Library of Congress does not necessarily protect you from infringement claims. If you sell a song that someone else wrote, then you may owe royalties. So, if you want to cover a song then you need to get the permission of the holder of the songwriter’s patent in order to cover that song.
The good news for filing a proper claim to copyright a song is that the U.S. Library of Congress will accept a CD in lieu of sheet music. So, all you have to do is fill out the forms and get your music to the government.
What about the poor man’s copyright? Can you simply put a CD of music into the mail and mail it to yourself in order to date your copyright? As an attorney, I’m going to advise you to get $45 or so together to properly file the copyright. Don’t skimp on these kinds of endeavors. Judges will roll their eyes at these kinds of maneuvers. If you’re a professional, then act like one. If money’s really, really tight, then consider consolidating many songs into a single copyright and getting one copyright for a volume of work. The IP will extend to every song submitted to the government.