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Copyright Registration of Sound Recordings

You may have composed the words and music to a new song you are sure will be in a TV commercial. Even though you recorded it and have common law copyright protection, you should take the steps to get further federal copyright protection. You can do that and several other actions to protect your sound recording.

Your sound recording can be extremely valuable. Historically, in the music business, the record company owned the sound recording copyright, not the composers. Today, it is far more common to see writers or publishers owning the sound recording because it's easier to self-distribute. The internet and music streaming services like Spotify and Pandora make it easier for up-and-coming composers and artists to share their work.

This article helps you understand copyright law and how to register your sound recording with the United States Copyright Office.

Copyright Law Basics

The Copyright Act is a U.S. federal law that governs copyright protection and enforcement. The Copyright Act provides the legal framework for registering and enforcing copyrights. In the United States, the United States Copyright Office handles copyright registration. Copyright registration establishes a public record of the copyright claim. The registration system for copyright varies by country.

Copyright ownership grants exclusive rights to the copyright owner. Having a copyrighted work includes the right to distribute copies of the work, reproduce the sound recording, and perform and display the sound recording in public. Specifically, copyright protection grants protection of derivative works. Derivative works are new works derived from existing copyrighted works.

Copyright protection gives copyright owners legal recourse in case of copyright infringement. Copyright infringement happens whenever another person or business uses copyrighted work without permission. Attorney fees in copyright infringement cases can go to the winning party. Copyright infringement cases also grant statutory damages. Statutory damages are pre-determined amounts set by the Copyright Act.

No copyright infringement exists if someone uses a work in the public domain. Public domain refers to works that are not protected by copyright. Public domain works do not need permission for their use. These works, like the "Happy Birthday" song, are freely available for use by the public.

If you want to know how to copyright your sound recordings, follow these steps to register your music, drama, or lecture recording with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Step 1 - Determine Eligibility

Make sure your work is a sound recording. Under the Copyright Act, sound recordings are "types of works that result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds, but not including the sounds accompanying a motion picture or other audiovisual work." Common examples include recordings of music, drama, podcasts, or lectures.

Ensure that your sound recording meets the eligibility requirements for copyright protection. Sound recordings must be original works fixed in a tangible form, such as a digital file, CD, or vinyl record. It is distinct from the underlying musical composition or musical work. The musical composition or musical work refers to the underlying lyrics and arrangement.

Some examples of eligible sound recordings:

  • A person singing
  • A person playing a musical instrument
  • A person speaking
  • An animal barking, growling, or making sounds
  • Sounds from the natural world (assuming the recording contains a sufficient amount of production authorship)
  • People talking on a podcast or radio play

Copyright registration for a sound recording alone is neither the same nor a substitute for the musical, dramatic, or literary work recorded. The underlying work, like the lyrics or words spoken, may be registered in its own right apart from any performance recording. The underlying work may be registered at the same time as the sound recording. If you are curious about how to register performing arts works, see FindLaw's Performing Arts section.

Step 2 - Gather the Required Information

Collect the necessary information for the U.S. Copyright registration standard application. This includes critical details about the sound recording, such as:

  • Title
  • Duration
  • Date of creation
  • Claimants of the sound recording
  • Names of the recording artists
  • Name of the record label (if applicable)
  • Names of the songwriters
  • Names of the copyright owners

You must supply a "deposit." This is a term that refers to your sound recording. The Copyright Act requires a phonorecord. This legal word means "a physical object that contains a sound recording, such as a digital audio file, a compact disc, or an LP." Digital formats can be .mp3 and .wav. You should submit the phonorecord in the same method it is published. For example, if it is an online download only, then only upload the digital file. If you publish the recording on a CD, then submit the CD.

Step 3 - Prepare the Application

Put into one envelope or package:

  • A completed application Form SR
  • The fee to the "Register of Copyrights"
  • Nonreturnable copies of the material to register

The deposit requirement is one or two phonorecords to register a copyright claim in a sound recording. The number and format required depend upon several factors.

Step 4 - Submit the Application

Send your completed application, required materials, and the filing fee to the U.S. Copyright Office. You can submit a group registration of up to 10 sound recordings by the same person or group at once.

Your registration becomes effective when the U.S. Copyright Office receives your application, payment, and copies in acceptable form. You will receive a registration certificate in 4 to 5 months if your submission is in order.

For more details, please see U.S. Copyright Office Circular 56, Copyright Registration for Sound Recordings, and other informational circulars.

File By Mail

Library of Congress

Copyright Office

101 Independence Avenue, S.E.

Washington, D.C. 20559-6000

File Electronically

In today's digital world, filing anything online can save you time, money, and a stamp. Copyright registration is no exception. The U.S. Copyright Office has an office website with an online system that allows you to register everything with a few clicks of a button. This online system is accessible on copyright.gov.

The advantages of an electronic application are simple:

  • It is faster
  • You can track your status online
  • You can pay by credit card
  • Upload deposits directly into electronic files

Hire a Legal Professional

Copyright law is complex. Don't let someone else use your work without giving you the proper credit or royalty payments. Hire an experienced intellectual property attorney in your area today to help with the copyright registration process.

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