When can you actually claim ownership of your new song? The legal definition is that you own the song the moment that you have finished writing the lyrics and playing the final note. The real question is, when can you prove ownership? Not to be paranoid, but with digital distribution to the masses available for independent artists, independent films and TV looking for a low cost alternatives to the big budget film score, it wouldn’t be difficult for the unscrupulous to take advantage of the independent artist and steal their work, or even for another artist to incorporate your work within their song. Of course this plagiarism comes to the surface once the movie becomes a hit or the plagiarised song makes a dent on the charts. You look up one day and say, “Wait a minute, that sounds like my song.”
Jackson Browne tells a great story about licensing “These Days” to Nico from Velvet Underground that was being produced by Andy Warhol, and even playing electric guitar on the new version of the song. Many years go by, Jackson has pretty much forgotten this as nothing ever came of it, and as he is sitting in a movie theater about to watch a new film, a guitar intro begins and Jackson thought, “Man, I used to play guitar just like that.” Sure enough, it is the remake of “These Days” with Jackson on electric guitar.
In this case, everything was legal and above board. Only Jackson’s memory seemed faulty. But as you can see, it would be easy enough for a song to be appropriated, especially from an independent artist, and show up years later. Fortunately, we have ways to protect your ownership claim which are relatively inexpensive and will give you some proof and confidence if you ever get into a dispute over the ownership of a song. In the U.S. it’s called getting a Certificate of Registration with the United States Copyright Office.
There are several types of works that can be registered; you will want to register a Sound Recording using Form SR. You only need Form CON if you don’t have enough room on Form SR to complete the registration, otherwise just ignore it. Fill out this form online and print it out (print two copies so that you can have one for yourself). I will usually wait until I have instrumentation and arrangement completed on my song and send in a rough mix to the Copyright Office, however you could also either send a simple demo or a final mix & mastered version. The more complete the song is, the stronger your claim for arrangement (in addition to sound recording, words, & music). Now you are ready to send off Form SR and an audio CD or cassette tape copy of the song, right? Not so fast monkey boy, here is where it gets interesting.
Tip #1 – Register Each Song Separately, Not As A Collection
There is a $45 registration fee per submission and it is allowable that you can submit a ton of songs under one fee, which is of course what I was going to do before I spoke with my friend and patent/copyright attorney, Tom Turner. Tom advised me that it is easier to prove a claim for a single song submission than for a collection of songs of which any one song is simply part of the collection. If a single song is submitted for registration you hold a much stronger claim of ownership. I was going to do the collection registration even with Tom’s advice to the contrary, and when I told him Tom said that he would pay the $45 per song if I didn’t have the money, and that’s how important it is to register them separately. No, I didn’t make Tom pay… No, I won’t give you Tom’s phone number so that you can ask him to pay for your songs…
Tip #2 – Include A Self Addressed Postcard for Acknowledgement Of Your Submission
Another great tip from Tom, who told me that submissions do get lost and you want to be able to claim the specific date that the Library of Congress received your submission (just in case), is to ask the Copyright Office Mail Room to send you a dated postcard. So one side of the postcard is self-addressed with the proper postage. On the other side you want to write:
Please acknowledge receipt of our:
i. Application for Copyright registration (2 pp)
ii. Transmittal Letter (1 pp)
iii. Deposit CD (1p)
iv. Check No. XXXX in the amount of $45 (filing fees)
by affixing the stamp of the Copyright Office Mail room hereon and returning this card to the addressee.
YOUR NAME (SONG TITLE)
The Copyright Office Mail room will stamp your postcard and return it to you with the day they received it. I did have one postcard returned to me without the mail room stamp, but the postage stamp date does the trick almost as well.
Proving Tom’s point, the Copyright Office did “lose” the CD of one of my songs. I received a copy of my submission and a nice letter saying because of security concerns, that they had radiated my CD so that it was no longer playable and to please send them another CD of my song. They must have had a new guy on the Radiation Machine that day.
Tip #3 – Include a Transmittal (cover) Letter
Maybe you noticed this item in the postcard list. As Lawyer Tom so wisely put it, “remember you are dealing with a government employee.” In this letter you are simply spelling everything out for them to make their job easier. No guesswork on their part means that it should “fly” through the system in only three months instead of six. Here is an example of what you want to say:
Register of Copyrights
Library of Congress
101 Independence Ave SE
Washington, DC 20559-6000
Re: Copyright Submission of YOUR SONG
Dear Register of Copyrights,
Enclosed you will find:
- Application for Copyright registration (2 pp)
- Deposit (Audio CD)
- Check No. XXXX (filing fees)
- Postcard acknowledgement request
If you have any questions about the submission, please do not hesitate to contact me at YOUR PHONE NUMBER.
Now you are ready to send this package out. The Copyright Office requests that you use a hard plastic case around your audio CD, not just a paper sleeve. Now off you go to the post office to mail it out. I would suggest that you keep a file of each song, which would include your copy of the submission letter and the returned date stamped postcard until you get your official Certificate of Registration. Now the caveat… This Namba Gear blog is for information purposes only and does not represent legal advice. If you have any questions, go see a patent & copyright attorney.
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