Writing Music: How to Copyright, Publish and Record a Song

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Most important of all, if you are offered a deal concerning any of your compositions, no matter how small or lucrative it may appear, get a lawyer — a good MUSIC LAWYER — to look the deal over first.

This article is based on a lecture given at Oberlin College by John Bassette. Singer-songwriter, actor and all-around Good Guy, John has appeared at Carnegie Hall in the New Songwriters Concert, with Sammy Davis in the London production of Golden Boy and at hundreds of college concerts throughout the country. He has just signed a recording contract with United Artists. Watch (Please!-John Bassette) for the album.

First gang, let me say that writing one — or even a hundred — songs doesn’t make you a songwriter any more than painting one or even a thousand canvases makes you a real painter. Songwriting is an art. However, let us assume you have written at least one song you feel is good enough to sing for someone other than a few captive friends; one tune good enough to be recorded. Now what?

Well, you’ve heard stories about songs being stolen. Believe me, some of those stories are true and it is most important that you protect your work from any unscrupulous “bad guys”. So, before you do another thing, COPYRIGHT your song. Copyrighting is the best proof of ownership. With a copyright, you will be sure that no one can steal your work . . . without your permission.

Copyrighting a song is fairly simple. Just write the United States Bureau of Copyright, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20504. Ask for a FORM E for each of your compositions. Fill out a separate form for each song. Return the completed forms and one manuscript copy of each composition. Remember: Tapes are not accepted, so get busy on the manuscripts.

You must also — in addition to the Form E and manuscript copy — send the Bureau of Copyright a fee of six dollars for each song. When I copyrighted my first composition around 1965, I think I paid only four dollars. The price may change but, if you believe in your material, six dollars is cheap insurance against a possible hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Now this is important, so dig it. The copy you send to Washington will not be returned. Please don’t send your one and only. Keep an exact duplicate for yourself. Also, once a song has been filed with the United States Bureau of Copyright, there can be no changes, additions, or corrections. So do it right the first time.

In return for your song, the completed Form E, and your six dollars the copyright office will send you a certificate with an “Eu” copyright number. “E” is for Form E, and “u” for unpublished work. When you receive this certificate your song will be duly copyrighted and will join the files of over 24 million copyrighted songs dating back to 1870.

Your composition will be protected for a period of 28 years. At the end of this time you can file a FORM R for a renewal period of 28 more years. Fifty-six years is the maximum length of time a song can be protected under present laws, although a bill now pending in congress would extend that protection to the life of the author plus 50 years.

If, God forbid, you’ve passed on to that great recording studio in the sky before the end of the first 28 years and the song is still copyrighted in your name, then your widow or your children or the executor of the estate (right!) may file for renewal.

The forms issued by the United States Bureau of Copyright that may be of interest to you are:

  • FORM E: For single compositions published and unpublished and composed by U.S. citizens or any composition being published in the U.S. for the first time.
  • FOREIGN: For any foreign work first published in the U.S. FORM A Song books, work books, etc. Text with music. 
  • FORM D: For dramatico-musical works such as operas, musicals, bal lets, etc. 
  • FORM R: Renewal of copyright.
  • FORM U: After a FORM E has been filed, the owner of the copyright fills out this form and sends it in when anyone has recorded his song.

On each copy of your song, once it is copyrighted, you must include a notice of copyright. That is to say, on each copy the word “copyright”; or the symbol ” © “; or the abbreviation “copr.”. Also the date and the name or names of the author or authors must appear on the first page. It should look like this:

Copyright 1970 Henry Jones
©1970 Henry Jones
Copr. 1970 Henry Jones

If you don’t use one of the three, your song will be deemed dedicated to the public.

There is no limit on the amount of time that may lapse between the completion of a composition and the time you choose to copyright it. In other words, you can copyright a song this year that you wrote 5 years ago!!!

It is necessary to mention another very important point. You can only copyright a complete work. You cannot copyright a raw idea; a story outline; half a verse, or half a song: Only a complete work can be copyrighted. Therefore, anyone can write a song using an idea you have used IF they do not use your melody or your words. And you have the same privilege.

Some of you may not write music or be able to transcribe a melody to the written page. “What do I do?”, you might ask.

Well, find someone that can do it for you, Baby! Find someone like the local high school music teacher (or another upstanding member of the community) and enlist their aid in writing a “lead sheet”. Better still, learn to do it yourself!!! It’s not hard . . . they say.

A “lead sheet” is the words and melody with the letter name for the cord used. A “lead sheet” is all you need to copyright.

You may have heard of other methods of protecting your song such as sending it to yourself by registered mail and not opening it except in the presence of a Notary Public or in a court of law; putting your songs on tape and putting the tape in a safe deposit box; etc. For many more reasons than we have space to explain, please do it the right way with the United States Bureau of Copyright. It saves a lot of time and trouble in the long run.

Now let me blow your mind. The moment you finish a song it is automatically covered by a COMMON LAW COPYRIGHT! Got that? Just because you wrote it, your composition is copyrighted.

“Then why go through all those changes with the Bureau of Copyright?”

OK. Here are just a few reasons:

  • Once a song has been published you loose your common law copyright. 
  • It costs money (court cost, lawyers fees, etc.) if it becomes necessary to prove ownership of a song by right of common law copyright. 
  • If there is an infringement on your song before you can take it to court, you must first file a FORM E anyway and THEN start proceedings!!! That’s right Baby! So why not do it first?

Let us suppose that after you do the thing with the United States Bureau of Copyright some S.O.B. steals your song. What do you do? Find a good MUSIC — not a real estate or a criminal — but a MUSIC LAWYER and see if you have a case.

Now here’s a heavy point: Because a song is copyrighted does not mean that the song is published; because a song is performed publicly does not mean it is published; distribution of “professional” copies to publishers, groups, and others does not constitute publication.

“What then is a published song??”

When a song is placed on sale or has been sold or distributed publicly for public use, it is said to be published. So then it stands to reason that a publisher is one who sells, places on sale or publicly distributes songs for public use.

“It also stands to reason that I can publish my own songs,” you might say.

You are correct. In fact, you are granted the right by that great American document, the Constitution: “Freedom of the Press”, you know.

“If this is so, why do writers need publishers then?”

Well, it’s like this:

  • Usually writers need money (at six dollars a song, copyrighting can get pretty expensive) and publishers usually have money. 
  • The writer needs contact with groups, people who sing and advertising agencies that do commercials (if you want to get into that). The writer also needs contact with people in movies, TV, etc. The publisher has these contacts.
  • The writer needs lead sheets and demonstration records to enable other artists to see and hear his music. The publisher has access to facilities for making these. 
  • Publishers have to collect broadcast and other performance fees through ASCAP and BMI. To collect these, a publisher must belong to BMI and/or ASCAP. There are also foreign performance fees to collect and mechanical rights and recording licenses to grant.

To do all this, publishers must have a promotional staff, research staff, lawyers, administrative staff and other personnel: People to handle the paper work connected with the music business and people to push your songs.

For the contacts, advances, facilities, marketing and collecting of fees, a publisher will ask 50% of all monies received. That is, under the law he must give you at least 50%. Sometimes you can get more. So, unless you know the publishing business and have enough capital to set up your own company, it would seem best to get a good publisher to handle your songs.

“What is a good publisher?”

Obviously a good publisher is one that is first and foremost interested in your material, and second, a good publisher must have the aforementioned facilities.

“How do I find a good publisher?”

(It’s amazing the way you keep asking those questions just before each of my answers!) After your song/songs are copyrighted, I suggest you talk to a few established songwriters and get some ideas as to what publishing companies to seek out. If you don’t happen to know John Lennon, Paul McCartney, James Taylor, Tom Paxton, Simon and Garfunkel . . . look on record labels for the names of companies that handle the material of writers you admire. Then contact those companies. Their addresses are often on the record jackets. If they aren’t, you can check them out in a directory of manufacturers at almost any library or in trade publications such as Cashbox.

Once you find a company that is interested in your material, find out what they have to offer you in both finances and facilities. And remember: Facilities can be even more important than in-front finances. After all, if a company offers you a lot of bread, and can’t get your song recorded then that’s no good, because your song sets on the shelf for 28 years. On the other hand if a company offers you little or no bread but that company has A-1 facilities to reach all media by which your song can be used, you should think twice before turning them down.

Publishing companies offer many types of deals or agreements. Three of the most basic are:

  • One song, or song-by-song agreement: The publisher takes one or several of your songs and you sign a deal for that one or that group of songs and nothing else. 
  • Exclusive writer agreement: This arrangement between you and the publishing company states that everything you write — for a given time  say, three years — is published by said publisher.
  • Staff writer agreement: Usually a 9-to-5. You work for the company on a regular basis and you are paid a salary.
  • Co-publisher agreement: With this arrangement, the writer forms his own publishing company and enters into an agreement with a larger publisher. The writer’s company gets a percentage of the publisher’s royalties. Don’t Panic: Dig it! With this deal you collect your 50% as a writer AND a percentage of the publisher’s half. It’s easy to see why this is the most desirable agreement for you. It’s also easy to see why this arrangement is usually made only with successful writers, although — in today’s market — many young, unknown writers are also seeking and getting this deal too.

There is a fifth writer-publisher arrangement known as the “outright sale” in which a writer sells all future rights to his song. Most writers prefer not to sell their songs outright for the simple and obvious reason that you can sell a song for $500.00 and, two years later, that song (YOUR song) can become a small hit with the writer’s royalties of about $70,000 going to someone else. Man, that’s the original “Bummer”. Ask Chuck Berry.

In your search for a publisher you may come upon an ad in a magazine offering to “get your song recorded”. In most cases, these companies leave much to be desired. To say more or to be more specific might invite suit.

Most important of all, if you are offered a deal concerning any of your compositions, no matter how small or lucrative it may appear, get a lawyer — a good MUSIC LAWYER — to look the deal over first. The Bar Association of any major city will give you the names of several lawyers who specialize in music law. If the company can’t wait until a lawyer of your choice can look at the contract, you simply do not want to do business with that company!!

If you have any more of those little questions (and, if you really want to break into songwriting, you will because I’ve just hit the high spots) you should get a copy of This Business of Music by Sidney Shemel and M. William Krasilovsky, edited by Paul Ackerman and More About this Business of Music by the same team. The books are expensive ($12.50 for the first and $6.95 for the second) but they’re the best I’ve found and — if you read them —  you’ll know more than most professionals about the business. The books are from Billboard Publishing Co. New York.

Well, good luck. Enjoy your life and your music. PEACE.