Entertainment Careers,  music business

Copyright 101 Basics

By Laura Kessler

Avoid the So-Called “Copyright Brokers” and Do It Yourself!

Lately you may have noticed the increasing online presence of organizational entities offering to copyright your songs for you for fees ranging anywhere from $75-$150. While there are certainly legitimate services artists should outsource to PR companies and agents, in my opinion copyrighting should never be one of them for a variety of reasons.

First, the fee to copyright a song is only $45 regardless of who registers it. Anything above and beyond that is a “service fee” and it will literally take the same amount of time to tell the broker the required information as it would for you to easily print it yourself. Second, a copyright is a privately held public record that will belong to you and your heirs potentially. Would you outsource and entrust a total stranger the task of depositing your paycheck at an ATM? I didn’t think so. There are just certain legal and financial details we need to take personal responsibility for to ensure they are managed correctly. I have even heard some upsetting horror stories of one of these organizations copyrighting songs in the name of the organization, not the author, and then charging ongoing fees for “renewal” and such nonsense.

For all of the above reasons, my advice as always is self-reliance and personal responsibility for artists. Frankly, anyone too lazy to learn how to copyright their own works is probably going to have far worse problems during their career as a result!

How to Copyright a Song Yourself:

The Copyright Office at the U.S. Library of Congress charges $45 per song. Period. And yes, you should register if you take yourself seriously as an artist. Usually what you will need to fill out for a standard song is a form called the “Short Form PA.” It is at most a 2-3 page handwritten form of which most of what you fill in is your address a few times, name of artist, song title, year of creation, and check the appropriate boxes if you are copyrighting music, lyrics, or both. Easy! Now just write a check for $45 payable to the U.S. Library of Congress, put a stamp on the envelope and walk to your nearest mailbox. Voila! You’re done and just saved between $30-80 that could have gone to a copyright broker. It’s truly that simple.

If you have questions you can call the Copyright Office directly at (202) 707-3000 and speak to a live representative with a surprising minimum of voicemail bureaucracy. I’ve found them to be very patient and helpful anytime I have called and have almost never even been put on hold before speaking to a live human. (If only the phone company were the same!)

One Nice Yet Legit Way to Save Money on Copyrighting: The Form CON

If you are on a tight budget and are copyrighting an entire album or demo with multiple songs, then in addition to the Short Form PA you also have the option of filling out the “Form CON” to avoid paying $45 for each individual song you need to copyright. This is the official continuation sheet the Library of Congress uses in its records for any additional authorship details you wish to provide. The nice thing about this form is that for the same one-time fee of $45 you can copyright a collection of songs under a single title on the Short Form PA, and then list all the individual song title names on the Form CON so they are safely copyrighted by name.

For example, if U2 had used the Form CON to copyright The Joshua Tree album, the title listed on the Short Form PA would have been something like “Songs from the Joshua Tree” or “The Joshua Tree Album / Collection.” Then on the Form CON, they would have listed the complete track list, i.e. “1) Where The Streets Have No Name, 2) I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, 3) With or Without You”..etc. Hypothetically, instead of paying $495 total to copyright all 11 songs on the album separately, the Form CON would have saved U2 $450 and cost only $45 to copyright the entire album. I know a few budget-minded artists who copyright all their individual works annually this way under a single generic umbrella title such as “2007 Collection / Works In Progress,” etc.

Down the road when you have more financial resources you may feel it is more business-chic to individually copyright track titles separately, but in truth, you will have just as much copyright protection with the Form CON until then.

And by the way – as of July 2007, the U.S. Copyright Office has been Beta-testing a new cheaper electronic application process that, if deemed manageable, will actually lower the cost to $35 per song. Read more about it and learn how to become a beta tester here: http://www.copyright.gov/docs/fees.html

Ultimately, there are places you can safely cut corners in your artistic career, and other places you should not. I say, save your money on things you can (and should) do yourself easily enough like copyrighting, and instead invest it in smart things with good payoff potential, such as professional web design, photography and graphic design. Remember, you typically get what you pay for, however when you use a copyright broker you may not even get that! Visit the links below for more information direct from the Library of Congress, and don’t just automatically trust “informational sites” which are sometimes just posing as a guise for copyright brokers. Free assistance is definitely out there but you do have to first seek it. Best of luck to you, and make some good music worth copyrighting!

Related Links:

U.S. Copyright Office: http://www.copyright.gov

Copyright Forms: http://www.copyright.gov/register/performing.html
—“Short Form PA” – usually this is all you need
—“Standard “Form PA” – at least read the directions on this even if you use the short form because it answers a lot of FAQ’s the short form skips over
—“Form CON” – continuation sheet for multiple works

Library of Congress
Copyright Office
101 Independence Avenue, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20559-6000
(202) 707-3000