Guide to Music Copyright: Protect and Monetize Your Compositions and Recordings

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16 Min


18 Jun 2024

Music Copyright Laws: Protect & Monetize Your Songs

If you want to make money from your music compositions or recordings and protect your work from being misused, understanding copyright laws is crucial.

What is Music Copyright?

Skip to the next part if you know what that is …

Music copyright is a legal protection for creators of original music compositions and recordings. It gives the owner exclusive rights to use, distribute, and make money from their music. This means any reproduction, performance, distribution, or adaptation of the music needs permission from the copyright holder. Copyright covers both the musical composition (like lyrics and melody) and the sound recording. It ensures that artists and producers get compensated for their work and helps prevent unauthorized use of their music.

Two Types of Music Copyright

When it comes to music copyright, there are two main types you should know about: master and composition.


The composition copyright protects the written music and lyrics of a song. For instance, if you wrote a song called "Summer Breeze" with a catchy melody and heartfelt lyrics, the composition copyright ensures that you have control over how that song is used. This means anyone who wants to perform, record, or distribute a version of "Summer Breeze" needs your permission. Even if someone else records their own version of the song, they still need to respect your composition copyright.

Master Recording

The master recording copyright protects the specific recorded performance of a song. Imagine your band records an awesome version of "Summer Breeze" in the studio. This recording is protected by the master recording copyright. If a movie wants to use your recording in a scene, they need your permission for the master recording. However, if they want to have a different artist record a new version of the song, they only need to deal with the composition copyright. Your master recording remains uniquely yours, safeguarding your exact performance and production.

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Exclusive Rights Held by Copyright Owners

When you create an original piece of music and record or write it down, you automatically get a set of exclusive rights. These rights give you control over how your music is used and help you earn money from it. Here’s a simple breakdown of what these rights are:

Reproduction Rights

As the copyright owner, you have the exclusive right to make copies of your music. This means only you can decide if someone can make digital files or any other copies of your music. 

Every time someone hits play on a song on a streaming service, it counts as a reproduction of both the recording (the master) and the music itself (the composition). This means streaming services need licenses from the copyright owners to play these songs. The owners of the recordings get paid through streaming payouts, while the songwriters receive mechanical royalties.

Distribution Rights

Every time someone plays a song on a streaming service, it counts as a reproduction of both the recording (the master) and the music itself (the composition). This means streaming services need licenses from the copyright owners to play these songs. The owners of the recordings get paid through streaming payouts, while the songwriters receive mechanical royalties.

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With us, artists retain full ownership of their recording rights, allowing them to maintain control over their intellectual property and monetize their creations as they see fit. Text us here to learn more about the process and how AIR Music can contribute to your success.

Public Performance Rights

You have the exclusive right to allow or prevent your music from being performed in public. This includes live concerts, radio plays, or any public venue. If your song is played somewhere, it’s because you gave permission.

In most parts of the world, there are performance rights for both the people who write the music (composition owners) and the people who perform and record it (master copyright holders). These performance rights for recording artists are often called "neighboring rights" or "related rights."

Neighboring rights apply to all performances in countries that signed the Rome Convention of 1961, as long as the recording artist lives in one of those countries. The United States did not sign that convention.

Digital Performance Rights

To make up for the fact that the US does not have neighboring rights, a special right called “digital performance rights” was created there. 

These digital performance rights are similar to neighboring rights but only apply to digital services. They don’t apply to traditional radio or other public performances.

Derivative Works Rights

You can make new works based on your original music, like remixes, arrangements, or adaptations. If someone else wants to create a new version of your song or use your original recording, they’ll need a special license. For creating a new version of the composition, they need a synchronization (sync) license. If they want to use the original recording, they’ll need a master use license.

Moral Rights (in Some Places)

In some countries, you also have moral rights. These rights let you ensure that you’re credited for your work and protect your music from being used in ways that could harm your reputation.

Public Display Rights

While this mostly applies to visual works, it can also relate to music if your lyrics are displayed publicly. You get to decide if and how your lyrics are shown to others.

When Are Music Copyrights Created?

Music copyrights are created the moment you put your original musical work into a tangible form. Essentially, as soon as you record your song, write it down, or document it in any way that can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated, it’s automatically protected by copyright law.

Originality and Protection

For a piece of music to be protected by copyright, it needs to be original. This doesn’t mean it has to be one-of-a-kind, but it should show some degree of creativity. Once you’ve got your music fixed — whether it’s through a recording, sheet music, a digital file, or even handwritten notes — it’s immediately protected.

Automatic Rights

You don’t need to register your music with any government office to get this protection. It’s automatic from the moment of creation and fixation. This grants you several exclusive rights, like the right to reproduce your work, distribute copies, perform it publicly, display it publicly, and create new works based on it.

Option of Registration

While registration isn’t required, there are benefits to doing it. Registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office makes it easier to enforce your rights and take legal action if someone infringes on them. It also allows you to seek statutory damages and attorney’s fees in court, which isn’t possible if your work isn’t registered.

Duration of Copyright

Copyrights for music generally last for the life of the author plus 70 years. If more than one person created the work, it lasts for the life of the last surviving author plus 70 years. 

International Protection

On the global stage, many countries follow the Berne Convention, which means your copyright is recognized internationally without needing formal registration. This ensures that your music enjoys protection in many countries around the world.

Benefits of Registering Your Music Copyright

While your music is automatically protected by copyright as soon as you record or write it down, registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office offers some perks. Here’s why it’s worth considering.

Strong Legal Proof

When you register your music, it becomes part of the official records. This serves as strong evidence in court that you own the work. If there’s ever a dispute about who created the music, having it registered makes it much easier to prove that it's yours.

Proving that someone copied copyrighted work can get a bit tricky. Imagine you used a sample from an online pack that claimed all its content was free under Creative Commons. But later, it turns out that the sample you used was actually part of a copyrighted work. Even though you had no idea and no intent to infringe, you’d still be liable for copyright infringement. It’s a reminder to always double-check the source and licensing of anything you use in your projects.

Ability to Sue for Infringement

Registering your copyright before someone uses your music without permission, or within three months of releasing it, allows you to take legal action to protect your work.

To establish copyright infringement, you first need to prove two things: that the copyrighted work was copied and that the copy is "substantially similar" to the original. Courts often bring in external experts to determine how much of the work was copied and to what extent.

But two different people can independently come up with the exact same material, what’s then? In such cases, the court also needs to establish that the potential infringer had access to the original work. If they didn’t, both creators could end up with legitimate copyrights.

When it comes to access, it just means the prosecution needs to prove that the infringer had the ability to access it, not necessarily the proof of access itself — like if the work was available on a public platform such as YouTube.

Financial Compensation

If your copyright is registered, you can seek statutory damages and attorney’s fees if someone infringes on your work. Statutory damages can be quite substantial, which can be very helpful if it’s hard to prove actual financial loss. Plus, you can recover the costs of hiring a lawyer.


A registered copyright sends a clear message that you’re serious about protecting your music. This can discourage others from using your work without permission, as they know you have the means to enforce your rights.

Easier Licensing

Having your copyright registered makes it simpler to license your music. Potential licensees can easily verify that you own the work, which can speed up negotiations and make the process smoother.

Long-Term Protection

Registering your copyright ensures there’s an official record of your work. This helps maintain a clear history of ownership and any transfers or licenses over time, preserving your rights and legacy.

How to Copyright a Song via the US Copyright Office

Copyrighting your song is a vital step to protect your music and ensure you get the recognition and compensation you deserve. Here's an easy-to-follow guide to help you through the process with the US Copyright Office.

  1. Set Up an Account with the US Copyright Office.
  2. Select the type of work you’re registering. For songs, you might pick “Sound Recording” for a recording or “Work of the Performing Arts” for a composition.
  3. Complete the online form with details about the authors, the title, and other relevant information.
  4. Follow the instructions to upload your song files. This could be an audio file for a recording or a PDF for sheet music.
  5. Pay the Fee. The registration fee varies. As of now, an online single application fee is $45. Check the website for the latest fee information.
  6. Hit the submit button to send your application to the US Copyright Office. After submitting, you can monitor the status of your application through your eCO account.

Processing can take a few months. You’ll get a certificate of registration once your song is officially copyrighted.

Once you receive your copyright certificate, store it in a safe place. This document is proof of your copyright registration and is essential for legal purposes. If anything about your song changes (like adding new co-writers), you might need to update your registration.

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