Part 4. Copyright on Songs. The Basics:
How to Register Copyright on Your Songs

Part 4 . Copyright on Songs. The Basics:
How to Register Copyright on Your Songs
by Sue Basko, esq.

This is the final part of a four-part series. Please read all the parts. This is not legal advice and may not apply to your particular situation. You should consult with an attorney.
To go to the other lessons, click on them:
This lesson tells you how to actually register copyright online on a collection of UNPUBLISHED songs. It is fast and easy and costs only the $35 government registration fee to register a collection of songs, such as your full CD of songs - read on ---

As explained in the prior lessons, to be eligible to have a copyright, a song must be:
1) Original; 2) Creative; and 3) Set in tangible form.

Copyright is automatic. Now that you have your creative, original song set in tangible form, what do you have to do for it to have copyright? Nothing! Copyright is automatic once it is set in tangible form. You do not even have to mark it with Copyright or the c in a circle copyright sign. However, it is a real good idea to give notice to others that you do own it and the best way to do that is by giving the C symbol (I cannot make that symbol on this blog) along with "Copyright (Year) (Your Name).

Advantages of Registering Copyright. Registering copyright is done through the US Copyright Office. The advantages of doing so are fourfold:

1) registering gives a presumed date of creation; (This presumption can be overcome with other evidence. )

2) registering can give notice to anyone searching copyright on the U. S. Copyright Office website;

3) You cannot litigate copyright until you have registered.

4) It's fun and will make you feel special!

On a song, four things can be copyrighted. These elements can be owned by different parties. The four elements and likely owners are:

1) Lyrics. The copyright on the lyrics, or song words, usually belong to the person or people who wrote them. If the songwriter has signed with a publisher, the publisher might own or partly own the copyright. Also, if the songs were written as a "work for hire" specifically under a "work for hire" contract, then the employer would own the copyright. An example of this might be if a TV show hired a songwriter under a work for hire contract to create a theme song for a show.

2) Music. This is usually owned by the person(s) that wrote or created the music. This gets tricky if all the music was not written in advance by the songwriter, and then musicians created the various instrument parts. Usually the song melody is the part that counts. But significant contributions to the composition can change that. That is why it is important to consult with a lawyer and have agreements in advance with band members or session musicians. Everyone needs to have an honest, clear understanding of whether they will be given ownership/ copyright or not. If the songwriter has signed with a publisher, the publisher might own or partly own the copyright.

NOTE: Please note that the lyrics and music are called "the song" and the people that created the music and lyrics own that song copyright as a group. Ideally, all those names should register copyright together. However, if someone with whom you wrote a song registered copyright on the song and did not include your as one of the copyright owners, you can contact the Copyright Office and make a claim as to ownership and ask to have your name added.

ALSO, if you are ever looking for the songwriters of a particular song, you may find that the co-writers on a given song may be represented by different PROs, or may have different publishing companies. There may even be U.S. PROs and foreign PROs, and publishing companies scattered about the globe, all for one song. This is especially so for groups from the UK where one or more of the members now reside in the U.S. But, even with an American rock band, you may see that some songs are with one PRO, perhaps one the songwriters were with in their early days. The songwriters may have since signed on to a new PRO, but the songs may not have followed them. Likewise, a publisher may have signed one band member as a songwriter, but may not have signed all the band members.

3) Arrangement. This usually applies when a composer is making a new arrangement of a song written by a different person. Theoretically, copyright on the arrangement will belong to the person that arranged the music. However, the publisher of the song, when giving a compulsory mechanical license to re-record (cover) the song, will sometimes stipulate that the copyright on any new arrangement will belong to the publisher.

A new arrangement is considered a "derivative work," and the right to make a derivative work is not included in the compulsory license that enables one to re-record (make a cover of a song). Some people do copyright new arrangements. These are usually songs that are in the public domain, such as old folk songs, carols, or old classical pieces. However, the publisher may encourage creativity and music sales and royalties by allowing a composer to create a new arrangement and/or to own the copyright on it. These things are not statutory and are bargained out with the publisher.

4) Recording. The recording itself has a copyright. That means that if the same song is recorded five different times, you can register copyright on each of these recordings. Most independent musicians register copyright on the best recording they have and do not bother with the rest. If a song is recorded under a record label, it is likely that the record label owns the copyright on the recording. Care should be taken, when recording in a studio, that you do not sign papers that give ownership of the recording or any percentage of ownership to the studio, unless you are aware and mean to do this.


The best, fastest, cheapest way is to register online at the U.S. Electronic Copyright Office.

CREATING AN ACCOUNT WITH THE ELECTRONIC COPYRIGHT OFFICE: When you get on the site to register, you have to create an account. 

It just asks for your name, and you create a user name and a password. The user name is easy enough, but the password might take some thinking, because here are the rules:

Library of Congress - Password Policy Requirements

Each person using the Electronic Copyright Office System, eCO, must comply with the following:
  • Minimum password length must be 8 characters and consist of at least 2 alpha characters, 1 number and 1 special character (but not an ampersand - &).
  • A password must have no consecutive repeated characters.
  • A password must not include your user name or any part thereof.
  • A password must not include the names of a spouse, children, pets or one's own name.
  • A password must not include any regional sports teams or players.
  • A password must not include any office symbols.
  • A password must not include your social security number or any subset of your social security number that is more than a single number.
  • A password must not include words that can be found in any dictionary, whether English or any language.
  • A password must not be any of the 11 most recently used passwords for the account.
  • Every user with an account on a Library of Congress system including eCO is responsible for safeguarding access to that account.
  • A password must not ever be shared with anyone.
  • An account owner can change his or her password at any time, but at a maximum of once per day.
  • An account owner must change his or her password when prompted by the system.

The cheapest way to register - a Collection. You can register each song separately for $35.00 each. But if you have a collection of unpublished songs, you may be able to register them as a collection.

You can register a group of UNPUBLISHED songs as a COLLECTION with ONE registration and ONE $35.00 fee:

1) IF the songs are UNPUBLISHED; AND
2) if you are going to claim ownership on all elements of ALL the songs -- the recording, the music and the lyrics; OR
3) in case there are different owners of the elements, at least one person must be an owner on each of the elements. In other words, one owner name must be consistent through all the name fields on the application.

WHAT IS THE CATCH? When you register the songs as a collection, the name of the collection shows up in the Copyright search engine, but the names of each of the songs does not appear. It can seem as if you did not register copyright on the songs. The Copyright Office says the name of the Collection is "indexed," but the name of each song is not.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT THIS: Join a PRO and register the songs individually with the PRO. A PRO is a Performing Rights Organization, such as ASCAP or BMI.


To make it easier for people to find your songs, put your songwriter name and your actual name as part of the title of your collection. The Copyright Office database search is not good and putting your name in the title can help people find your songs. If the collection of songs is an actual "album," or CD, then give it that same name AND include your name. If it is a collection of songs that you have pulled together for the purpose of saving money by registering them as a collection, then have the title tell what it is AND give your name in the title and other pertinent information, such as: 9 Songs by Jane Smith from 2009 Registered with ASCAP. Or 8 Songs by Mark Jones 2010-2011.

This is how the Copyright Office explains registering a collection:

Unpublished Collections

Under the following conditions, a work may be registered

in unpublished form as a “collection,” with one application
form and one fee:
• The elements of the collection are assembled in an
orderly form;
• The combined elements bear a single title identifying the
collection as a whole;
• The copyright claimant in all the elements and in the collection
as a whole is the same; and
• All the elements are by the same author, or, if they are by
different authors, at least one of the authors has contributed
copyrightable authorship to each element.
An unpublished collection is not indexed under the individual
titles of the contents but under the title of the collection.

For example, let's say you have a songwriting partner. You write all the lyrics. Together, you and your partner write all the music. Together, you own the recordings. Together, you create 10 songs and record them. You can register these as a collection, because the two of you will claim copyright in the recording, you will claim copyright in the lyrics, and you and your partner will will claim copyright in the music. Voila! Ten songs registered for $35.
You can do this at the U. S. Electronic Copyright Office online .


1) a credit or debit card with enough money on it to pay the fee, which if you do it as a collection, should be $35.00.

2) The lyrics as one of these file types:

.doc (Microsoft Word Document)*
.docx (Microsoft Word Open XML Document)*
.htm, .html (HyperText Markup Language)
.pdf (Portable Document Format)
.rtf (Rich Text Document)
.txt (Text File)
.wpd (WordPerfect Document)
.wps (Microsoft Works Word Processor Document)**

* For Microsoft Office files, please use version 2003 or earlier.
** For Microsoft Works files, please use version 9 or earlier.

3) The music as one of these file types:
.aif, .aiff (Audio Interchange File Format)
.au (Audio File)
.mid, .midi, .rmi (Musical Instrument Digital Interface)
.mp3 (MP3 Audio File or Layer 3 Audio Compression)
.ra, .ram (Real Audio File)***
.rmi (Resource Interchangable File Format)
.wav (Windows Wave Sound File)
.wma (Windows Media Audio File)

***For Real Player files, please use version 6 or earlier.

CONCLUSION: I cannot teach you all about Copyright law in a few lessons. But you don't need to know all about it to be able to register copyright on your songs. If you follow the instructions I have given you, you should be able to register copyright on your songs, and that is the first step.

PLEASE let me know how this has worked for you.

Feel free to email me at and let me know how you did! -- Sue