The moment you have finished writing a song and recorded it on any tangible medium that can be read or heard, the lyrics and/or tunes have music copyright protection. Because it is your intellectual property (IP), you can immediately include the © for copyright on your work—it’s not necessary, but it is recommended. Leaving things at that does not provide the full benefits of copyright protection, however. To establish the right to bring legal action against anyone encroaching on your copyright, your music must be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office (USCO).

Legal Basics of Copyrighting a Song

In previous times, copyright protection in the U.S. depended on having a copyright notice. The copyright to a work was lost if it was published without this notice, and the work could then be used by anyone as a part of the public domain. This changed on March 1, 1989, when the U.S. signed onto the Berne Convention, an international agreement that protects copyright with or without a notice on it.

Another important change in legal rights occurred with the adoption of the 1976 Copyright Act, which grants the owner of a copyright exclusive rights. Those rights can, however, be exercised by others if authorized. The exclusive rights of the owner of a song’s copyright include the legal right to:

  • Reproduce the music
  • Prepare derivative works
  • Distribute copies to the public via sale
  • Publicly perform the work
  • Publicly display the lyrics
  • Publicly perform the song via digital audio transmission

Copyright Limitations: The Doctrine of “Fair Use”

As the exclusive owner of a song registered with USCO, you can take legal actions when copyright infringement occurs. There are limited circumstances in which copyrighted material can be used without the permission or approval of the owners, and it is known as “fair use.” The fine line between fair use and copyright infringement is often determined in court systems by considering these four factors:

  • Was the song used for the purpose of making a profit?
  • The level of originality of the song that was copied.
  • How much of the song was copied?
  • In what way, if any, did the unauthorized use affect the song’s potential market?

Legal Remedies for Infringement

Because copyright infringement is “strict liability,” any person who uses your music in a way goes beyond fair use is liable, no matter their intent. The following are among the remedies for copyright infringement:

  • Actual damages
  • Profits
  • Statutory damages of up to $150,000, which is the penalty for willful copyright infringement
  • Attorneys’ fees and costs
  • Injunctive relief
  • Possible criminal penalties if a willful infringement

Contact Patent Attorney Zachary Hiller About the Copyright on Your Music

Copyright laws on music are not always straightforward. For example, registration with USCO will provide IP protection in the U.S. only. The best way to secure copyright protection is with the help of an experienced attorney who specializes in matters related to intellectual property. For iron-clad protection of the copyright on your music, contact Attorney Hiller today for a free consultation by calling 832-830-8016, filling out our contact form, or sending an email to

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