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Confessions of a Songwriter

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Copyright Protecting Your Music For Use On The Web

Greetings my fellow Canadian music industry types! It is I, Austin Smith, Clever Joe's faithful songwriting servant (which is kinda weird, you know? To be a servant to a cartoon I know how Matt Groenig and Mike Judge feel.) Anyway, I once again must apologize for my lengthy absence, but as I've grown fond of saying, life's funny sometimes. It went down like this...

I was having this incredibly strange dream in which I was dressed in a huge chicken outfit, arm wrestling Gordon Lightfoot in a kiddie pool filled with green Jell-O, when I woke up to find that I was actually dressed in a huge chicken outfit, arm wrestling Gordon Lightfoot in a kiddie pool filled with green Jell-O!!! You can imagine my surprise! (Gord was surprised as I was...) O.K., so I made all that up. (Apologies to Mr. Lightfoot.) The point is that I'm back here with my ol' pal CleverJoe, and I'm here to talk about the music business. More specifically, songwriting.

After my last column, entitled "Songwriting, Music Publishing, and Other Anomalies," I received lots of e-mails from folks with questions about various aspects of this business of songwriting. Since the questions that some of you posed were ones that anyone interested in pursuing a career in songwriting has at one time or another asked themselves, I thought it would be a good idea to address some of those questions in this column. Sound good?

All right, here we go...

Protecting Your Music and Copyrights On The Web

One e-mail I got was from a writer whose band was looking into putting samples of their songs on their own website. One of his bandmates was concerned about the possibility of someone ripping off their songs if they put them out over the Web like that, into infinity. He wanted to know if the band should 'copyright' the songs first, not put them on the Web at all, or what? Well, I gotta tell you. I think this is a great question and one a lot of people have pondered since the Internet became such an integral part of our culture. It can be a great promotional tool, but it has also opened up a brand new can of potential copyright infringement worms.

First off, from reading the last column I wrote for Clever, you know that as soon as you finish a song and write the lyric down on paper, you own the copyright by simple virtue of the fact that you wrote it. In other words, you don't have to register a song with any copyright office in order to own the copyright on the song. HOWEVER, (and this is a big 'however'), if you ever have to prove that you wrote the song first, you'll probably need something more than your lyric scribbled on a bar napkin; even if you have written your name, the copyright symbol, and the year at the bottom of it. It's all about proof.

An excellent resource for musicians who want to protect their music. Covers many common misconceptions about registering copyrights, co-ownership of songs, etc.
There are a few different ways of establishing proof of copyright.
Some of you may have heard of the "poor man's copyright," which I used once myself when I first started writing songs. It used to be the most popular method of establishing proof of ownership of a song among starting-out songwriters, probably because it doesn't cost much. The poor man's copyright is when you record a song (or songs) on a tape, seal it in an envelope, and mail it to yourself via registered mail. Because it's registered mail it gets an official post office seal on it, complete with the date. The theory is that as long as the seal with the date on it is never broken (i.e., as long as you never open the envelope), then obviously the song inside the envelope was written before the date on the post office seal. I DO NOT recommend this method of establishing proof of copyright ownership. Over the years since people first started doing it, it has been put to the test in court and hasn't held up that well. Bottom line -- there are other, more effective ways of establishing proof of copyright.

I've read that a good method of establishing proof of copyright ownership is to, as soon as you've written a song, play it for people. Friends, acquaintances, business associates -- anyone who would stand up in court and be a witness for you, saying "Yes, I heard Jimmy-Joe play this song on_____ date." Apparently, witnesses are a good thing.

I recently called the Nashville Songwriter's Association International (N. S. A. I.) and asked them some questions on this subject of proof of copyright. I know they would welcome your calls, too. Their telephone number is:

The Songwriter's Association of Canada is also a great organization to look into: Songwriters Association of Canada

Anyway,when I spoke with N.S.A I. on the subject, they gave me the rundown on registering songs with the copyright office in Washington, DC, which I believe anyone can do, American or Canadian. Ottawa, Ontario has a similar copyright office for Canadians.

The deal at the Washington office, according to N. S. A. I., is that for a $30 fee you can register either one song (on cassette), or a volume of songs. I'm not sure how many songs you're allowed to have in one volume. (You must call them first and request the appropriate forms to fill out, which you then send in with your money and cassette.) I've heard that you can also, on the form you fill out, put one title at the top, and under it write the lyrics to a bunch of songs, thereby registering copyright on a group of lyrics for the price of one title. (I've never done this myself, however, so if you want to find out for sure, you should call them.

  • The Copyright Office in Washington is 202-707-3000.
  • The Federal Information Center is 800-688-9889.

In the United States, registering your songs this way is the highest level of recognizing ownership of copyright there is, but at $30 per song, you can see why most people (indeed, even most publishing companies) don't register every song they have in their catalog. It would be really expensive with the sheer numbers of songs involved. It would also be pointless, as most songs in most publisher's vast catalogs won't get cut and be exposed to the public, and therefore won't be in any danger of being ripped off.

One final thought on this business of proof of copyright. Do songs get ripped off? Yes. Does it happen a lot? No, not as often as people seem to think. When it does happen it's usually after you've had that huge #1 smash, and everybody's humming your tune (and certain types of people figure the song's made a lot of money and therefore target you in some bogus 'easy money' lawsuit, claiming you ripped them off. Certainly if you release an album, or have a song that looks like it's going to be on the radio --or maybe the Internet -- then take the maximum protection approach and register your songs with the copyright office.)

A valuable tool to understanding the music publishing industry. Set your goals, take the steps and you never know where yer boots will take ya!

The fact of the matter is, if you're gonna try and 'make it' in this business you have to get out there and get your songs heard by people. A lot of people. So, bite the bullet. Keep all your worktapes and lyric sheets (along with dates of creation) on file,play your songs for a few witnesses, maybe even register a few in Washington, but then forget about it! If you let the fear of being ripped off rule your creative life you'll never make it out of the basement. Take a few appropriate steps to protect yourself, then get out there in the world, play your songs, and see what happens. Otherwise, you'll never know what future greatness you could be depriving the world of!

O.K., sorry if that was long. (People say I tend to ramble...I think even Gord said that...) Anyway, on to the next question about music publishing:

Next Article:
How To Get A Music Publisher

Austin tells you how to go about getting a good music publisher.

Austin Smith is trekking down the songwriter's path in Nashville, Tennessee. Austin will be contributing regular articles to Cleverjoe's until he finally gets that elusive recording contract, at which point we hope he won't forget the little people.

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