Legal Pad: Copyright Basics & Registering Your Music

The U.S. Copyright office made significant improvements to their online registration system a few years back, rendering the old “long form” application process nearly extinct for registration of musical compositions and sound recordings.  While you can still submit a claim through the mail, e-filing is by far the best way to go.  A few advantages include a lower filing fee for a basic claim ($35 vs. $65 for paper filing), faster processing time (3 months vs. 10 months), online status tracking for your claim, the ability to upload certain categories of deposits directly as electronic files, and the flexibility to register 24 hours a day. Lastly, it is easy: plain and simple.

To register your work online, go to and click on the “Electronic Copyright Office” logo on the right side of the screen.  You will have to complete a brief registration filling in your name, email and password, then address, email, phone and preferred method of contact.  From there you’ll be taken to a registration home screen.  Click “register a claim” on the left and complete the next three steps:  (1) Complete Application; (2) Make Registration Payment; and (3) Submit Your Work.  When you click “Start Registration” to begin filing, you’ll most likely want to click “sound recording” (more on that below).  From there you’ll need to put down the name and details of the recording, then whether it has been published, certain rights and permissions and a few other miscellaneous details.  Here are a few tips to consider when going through the process:

Tip #1: Have everything ready to go: Before you start the online registration process formally, it may worthwhile to do a test run and make sure you have all the information you need.  If you pause for too long on the site, your session can time-out and you may be required to start your claim from the beginning.  Avoid this by having your checklist ready to go with all song names, composers, contact information, etc.  Now is not the time to figure out what members of your group “wrote” the song – figure it out before you go online.

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Tip #2:  PA vs. SR form: On the long form sheet, you’d be required to fill out a specific form (either a PA or SR).  A “PA” form is used for works of the performing arts, including musical works.  The PA is best used for musical compositions (i.e. written sheet music) or if your composer is different than from the musicians that perform the work, while the “SR” form is used for sound recordings.  However, if you’re looking to register both the sound recording and the underlying musical composition, an SR form will cover both only if the copyright claimant is the same for both.

Tip #3:  Keep in mind the allowable file types: You’re required to file electronic files of your music at the time of your e-filing.  Currently the allowable file types are: aif,  au, mid, mp3, ra, mri, wav, and wma.  For an updated list of files types, visit:

Tip #4: Timing of registration: During your application process, the question of “publication” will come up.  Publication generally means selling or distributing your music to the public.  It can also mean uploading a version to Facebook or YouTube.  Remember that publication is not necessary for copyright protection – meaning you can register anytime after the work is either written or recorded.  There is some disagreement as to the value of registering a composition until it has been published.

Tip #5: Remember your rights: Your song is considered “registered” at the time of filing, but it takes a few months to receive your certificate from the government.   Once your music is registered, your copyright is on public record and you may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees in successful litigation if someone uses your music (sound recording, composition or both) without authorization.

Tip #6:  Term of protection: Remember that registration is recommended, but not necessary in order for copyright protection to apply to your work (copyright begins the moment the work is “fixed in a tangible medium expression”).  The copyright will continue to protect your work for your life, plus 70 years.  If the composition is created by a corporation (an option some artists and songwriters take, depending on a variety of circumstances such as a work-for-hire arrangement), the protection lasts 95 years.  When the work is created by more than one person, the 70-year term will run from death of the last living author.

For a step-by-step tutorial on registering your work online, go to:

Adam Barnosky is a Boston-based attorney and writer.  For industry trends, legal updates, or to request an upcoming Legal Pad topic, find him on Twitter @adambarnosky.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is general legal information only and should not be taken as a comprehensive guide to copyright law. Consult your attorney for all specific considerations.

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