The most misunderstood area of songwriting is the copyright. I hope this will help clear up what a copyright is and if you should copyright your songs and/or lyrics.
The copyright law was changed in the early 1970’s when bootleggers starting selling unreleased material from The Beatles, Bob Dylan and others. Since some of these compositions were never released, it was difficult to stop the bootleggers without some law to go after them with. The changes in the law are very important. They say that a song or lyric is copywritten the moment it is written down or sung into a tape recorder. So your songs are protected from the moment you created them. You can as a songwriter, put the copyright symbol, a c with a circle around it on your lyrics and tapes prior to registering them ! With these changes, the Record Labels are now able to legally go after those who bootleg, since now the bootleggers are violating copyright law.
I’m sure you are asking, but HOW does the government know you have a copyright, since you haven’t registered the song yet. The truth is, they don’t. But consider what a copyright is. The copyright is NOT a certificate of unique creativity owned by you. It is in fact, a number the copyright office uses to file your creation. A song without a legal copyright cannot collect royalties. The copyright is what gives “ownership” to the song or lyric.
The following, is what the “Billboard Song Contest” printed about copyrighting songs:
According to the 1976 Copyright law your song is copyrighted the instant it is written. The Library o Congress does not copyright songs, nor examine songs to see if they are like others previously written. Their purpose is to register copyrights ( songs ). To register a song with the Library of Congress, you must fill out form PA and return it with two copies of your song ( either on tape or written out on paper ) and a registration fee of $25 per form. To get your free copies of Form PA, call the Library’s Form Hotline at (202) 707-9100 and leave a message s to what forms you need and the address to send them to. Or write to the Register of Copyrights, Library of Congress Washington D.C. 20559. You can also go online to http://www.lcweb.loc.gov/copyright .
Before you register your songs you should consider a few things. Registering each song you write in a year can be costly ( 25 songs = $625 ). Most music publishers do not register their copyrights ( songs ) until they have been commercially recorded or released in print or are otherwise generating royalties.
Incidentally, the chances of someone consciously stealing your song are very slim.
To prove that someone “stole’ your song”, it is essential that you prove access. (one of two reasons many music publishers won’t listen to unsolicited material is proof of access – the other of course, is time ). If two people are completely separate and have no contact with each other, and they write the exact same song word for word and note for note, both songs are still copyrightable by the respective individuals. If there is no access,, both are considered individual creations regardless of similarities.
If you would like more information on copyrights, the ins and outs of music publishing ad songwriting, we highly recommend all three audio tape volumes of Norman Weiser’s How To Turn Songs Into Gold. Or Jim Halsey’s tape, the Basics of Songwriting.
— R.J.Thompson – Billboard Magazine
The Poor Man’s Copyright
Many songwriters and lyricists are afraid to send out their material until they receive back a registration number from the copyright office. There is a solution, you can send your songs back to yourself utilizing Registered mail at the US Post Office. Once your package returns, do not open it, but put it in a safe place. If ever a legal matter involves this material, the envelope will be opened in court.
The Song Title
You cannot copyright or own a song title. If you want to write a new I CAN’T GET NO SATISFACTION, STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT or YESTERDAY you can, provided you do not use anything from the other song with that title. Of course, you wouldn’t want to because those songs are famous. I have heard many times where a songwriter has recorded a demo only to find a song with the same title on the radio a month later. The song wasn’t stolen, the title was just common, and somebody else got to the “radio” first !