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Registering Copyrights in Songs

There are two copyrightable works in a song.  The first is the musical composition, itself.  That is the music and the lyrics that might be fixed in a score.  The second work is a sound recording of the composition.  A registration of the copyright in either, or both, can be filed.  If there are 15 songs on one album, that could mean filing 30 registrations with the Copyright Office.   Just the Copyright Office’s registration fees would be over $1,000.00.

The copyright for both the musical composition and sound recording can be registered, together, for each song, which cut the registration fees in half; but that will work only if the ownership of the copyrights in both is exactly the same.  It is sometimes possible to file a single registration for a group of songs as a “collection.”  For example, this might be available for an album of new songs; however, who the authors and owners are of each of these works is critically important.

Take an example where one band member writes a song, then the band performs it, and it is recorded and mixed by a recording engineer. The writer is the author and owner of the copyright in the musical composition, each of the band members and the recording engineer is an author and part owner of the copyright in the sound recording.  Here, ownership of the copyrights would have to be transferred to one legal entity (for example, a company or partnership) to file a single registration for that song that would cover both the musical composition and the sound recording.  That is due to the requirement mentioned above -- that both the composition and the sound recorder must have the same copyright owner.

To register the copyrights in a collection of songs, (whether the registration is to cover the musical composition, the sound recording, or both), there is a further requirement; not only does ownership have to be the same, but at least one of the authors of the songs has to be the same.  So, if one song was written by the guitarist alone, and another song was written by the drummer alone, then the copyrights in the songs cannot be registered as a collection.  Similarly, if one song was written by the guitarist and the drummer and a second song was written by the guitarist and the bassist the copyrights may be registered together — if the ownership of the copyrights has been transferred to one owner.  But, if there is no written agreement transferring ownership to a common entity, then the songs cannot be registered together as a compilation. Having a handshake agreement is not sufficient.

You may be able to register all the musical compositions and sound recordings together if the songs and recordings have either been published together as a single unit of publication or if none of the songs have been published before.  However, again, the relevant copyrights must have the same owner and have at least one author in common.

If you want to know what to do for your particular situation, contact Arnold & Saunders to discuss your copyright matters.

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