I remember being in my first band, aged about 17 and super excited as the owner of a label had said he’d interested in us putting out a record with him. We had a meeting, in which the guy came up with a brilliant line: “I may be a scumbag, but it’s MR Bag to you!” Now, we may have been young and dumb but that gem of a line may have had some influence on us as kids immediately thinking we should probably copyright our songs - right now. But how?
Poor Man's Copyright
The urban myth back in the day went that you could mail yourself a copy of your music, not open the envelope and that was "poor man’s copyright". I read this same statement on a well meaning Facebook group YESTERDAY, so et’s clear that up ASAP. The government’s position on this is “There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration” - so you can stop doing THAT! Since one of us kids had been reading Donald J Passman’s book instead of doing their homework, we knew this and decided to send a copy to the US Library Of Congress for archival. Today, it costs $55 a song for multiple writers, or $35 for a single writer. You can do it online at: www.copyright.gov.
In the UK and most other countries, the best way is to just register with a PRO (performing rights organisation) , and to actually record the songs. The law is a tricky thing, however. Even that official registration is only a technical point, which may offer you some leverage should a lawsuit ever arise.
Here’s the actual lowdown: According to copyright law, the composer owns the copyright to a composition as soon as it is fixed in a tangible medium (written down or recorded)
That means for this audience, seeing as most of you will be recording your music, it is copy-written the the moment you do, so you can go ahead and release it, which is actually the best protection. If you were worried, and not ready to release, or were a songwriter you could even upload it to YouTube as an unlisted video, couldn’t you? This is just as effective as any archaic method.
Lawyers, Guns And Money
The problem is (US) society is extremely litigatious ( meaning people will sue you for literally anything like for example - serving coffee that is “too hot” ) so that’s why labels won’t even accept unsolicited demos from artists most of the time. Out there somewhere, there is Paranoid Pete and if Pete sent his brilliant creation with a 1-4-5 chord progression to Universal he would then doubtless sue should another artist put out a song with the same progression 100 times a day.
The reality is you tend to find the more paranoid people are of people “stealing their track” the less likely they are to have either written a good song, or are likely to do anything with it, which is the death knell for anyone’s career. Protect yourself, but get on with it. I have even seen people not wanting to send tracks to be mixed for this reason, or literally anywhere. Those people don’t tend to get much done, strangely enough!
You can look at that whole Blurred Lines scenario. Despite the might of Universal Music, whoever runs Marvin Gaye Inc. got a cool $5M+ because a judge decided that Pharrell borrowed from it too heavily. Did he or didn’t he? Who knows. You can bet your ass a copy of Blurred Lines sits in the library of congress, and he could have just got clearance, sampled it and saved a lot of hassle if he did - because the section in question has a hundred times better groove than Blurred Lines! I do know that somewhere right now in LA there is a room of writers listening to the top 20 ripping off current tracks, and I have even sat in a room with a famous producer seeing him do the exact same thing so I can’t be too sorry about the whole thing. Before I go, a couple more things I see people asking all the time.
Can I use my stage name?
When you register with your Performing Rights Society, you have the option of also listing your aliases, or stage name so it gets picked up. However, if you look at writing credits, for Jay-Z, for example: we see Shawn Carter listed. If fact if you were ever curious about anyone’s real name just look at the credits. It’s not really a surprise that Jay-Z sampled William (Billy) Squier, but some others you might find can be surprising!
What About Piracy?
Many territories either ignore or if we are being generous “loosely enforce” copyright so it’s all a bit theoretical ANYWAY. Whether it’s counterfeit goods, or your music on bootleg CD’s ( yes those still exist) or from a Russian MP3 site that’s not going to stop soon.
I put out a record recently for an artist that is SUPER obscure, and sure enough the day or two after release the top listed item from doing a Google search for the album title was sure enough a Russian pirate site, not an iTunes or Amazon listing.
I hope this helped clear up a few things about copyright in general, hope you enjoyed the copyright info for artists and by all means drop me a line if there’s anything else you’d like to see covered.
And, as always if YOU need your songs mixing hit me up! This is part of an ongoing series of Articles for Artists. Want more music biz articles? Stay tuned!