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Do I Need to Copyright My Music?

Should I copyright my piano music? Do I need to register my copyright? | composecreate.com

I love how it is becoming popular for piano teachers and piano students to compose music! Because it’s so popular, it’s also becoming easier with all the notation apps, programs, and advice from published composers coming out.

But one of the questions that gets asked frequently, but not answered accurately is:

Do I need to copyright my piano music in order to have protection?

Before I answer this based on careful research, consultation with an attorney and logical thought, I need to say first: I am not an attorney. I am not giving you legal advice. I am merely reporting to you some of the facts. If you want to be certain, you will need to consult your own attorney to ensure that what you want to accomplish is being accomplished.

Do I need to copyright my piano music? | composecreate.comWhen does copyright protection start?

From a document entitled “Overview of the Music Publishing Industry,” written by Robert E. Allen, and submitted by Linda A Newmark, the authors state:

Generally, the writers hold the copyright in the composition from its inception. As soon as the writers create the composition and either write it down or record it, the copyright springs into existence and protects the composition from use or exploitation by others.

Did that surprise you? You can copyright your piano music when you first write it down or record it. And your protection springs into existence at that time! But I’ll bet now you’re thinking…

Wait! I thought I had to register my music with the copyright office to get protection.

Again, from the “Overview of the Music Publishing Industry:”

Many people believe that a writer does not receive the protection of the copyright laws until he or she registers with the copyright office. This is not the case. While it is true that registering a composition with the copyright office provides notice to others of a writer’s claim to a composition and permits the writer certain additional remedies against a copyright infringer, registering a copyright is not a prerequisite for claiming an ownership interest in a composition. The concept of copyright is important to the music publisher because the copyright holder has the ability to license a composition’s exploitation and use and by so doing has the potential of generating income.

So why do publishers register a copyright for a book or piece of piano music?

Do I need to copyright my piano music? | composecreate.comTo answer this question, I had to personally ask an attorney who works with intellectual property (IP) issues. Here is what he said:

Publishers and others in the music business usually register as a matter of best practices so that they are prepared to defend their IP portfolio of published works. Further, they do so to put the world on notice of their copyright claims. While registration is truly a legal option to any author or composer, many smaller publishers opt not to register every work and instead only register when they have to deal with infringement. This is because a registration is a legal prerequisite to filing suit in Federal Court.

Additionally, registration is required to have the ability to claim statutory damages instead of actual damages. By way of example, actual damages are the damages you actually suffered while statutory damages could be a judicially determined number “in a sum of not less than $750 or more than $30,000 as the court considers just” per infringement. The calculated damages can thus far exceed the actual damages and thus presents a significant advantage to the author whose work was infringed.

So I have this piece that I just want to get out there and maybe sell it myself. What do I need to do?

Here is what the IP attorney said:

Mark your works with your copyright claim and consider registration if you start to publish a lot of works. Marking involves putting the typical “Copyright 2016, All rights reserved, Compose Create, LLC” or “© 2016, Compose Create, LLC” would both be examples. For more detail on marking your various types of material see http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ03.pdf.

I hope this is helpful and even encouraging information! I’d love to hear your thoughts! Are you surprised?

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  1. Takenya May 17, 2016 at 2:13 pm

    I’m actually taking Music Publishing 101 at Berklee College of Music Online right now and as you can guess, copyright protections are just the tip of the iceberg. You also have to consider documenting and tracking any and all parties who may have contributed to the project, split sheets, and much more! Very timely post!

  2. Wendy Stevens May 17, 2016 at 8:59 pm

    I’m so glad this is helpful, Takenya! You are right that there is so much to consider regarding copyright. This article assumes a solo piano piece that has only one composer. Thanks so much for leaving this comment to give others things to consider!

  3. Kaylene Veibell May 18, 2016 at 10:34 am

    Very informative! Thanks for posting it Wendy. 🙂

  4. Edna Bloom May 18, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    Great post for creative minds to remember! I really appreciate the time you took to put together this article. Thanks!

  5. Swan May 18, 2016 at 1:38 pm

    Very good to know! I frequently write up accompaniments or second instrumentations for my families with more than one child taking lessons or who have another taking another instrument, and I always thought I had no right to put. “C” by my name! Thanks so much for sharing!

  6. Kyle McKenna May 19, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    Great to know. I’ve always wondered about this. Thanks for writing!

  7. […] Really useful and surprising information on copyrighting music. […]

  8. Wanda May 28, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    Swan, Unless you have permission from the publisher, you do not have the right to put “C” by your name if you make an arrangement of their music. Making an arrangement of music under copyrhght does not give you rights. And though unlikely, you could be sued for copyright violation by the copyright owner.

    Now, if you compose your own music (or are arranging public domain music), and arrange additionial parts, that is different, of course you own the copyright for your new arrangement.


  9. Melissa Willis June 18, 2016 at 2:40 pm

    I’ve always wondered about this – thanks for the informative article Wendy!

  10. Friday Finds | Piano Pantry February 17, 2017 at 12:45 pm

    […] Really useful and surprising information on copyrighting music. […]

  11. Cedric Elmer June 8, 2017 at 7:01 pm

    Once the Library of Congress has your music on file, can one ask the Library to send out a copy to yourself or to someone else for a price of copping?

  12. Wendy Stevens June 12, 2017 at 7:20 am

    Hi Cedric,

    No, it’s not a place that distributes any music. It just holds the record for copyright.

  13. Jennifer Dawson June 22, 2017 at 4:16 pm

    This answered a pressing question! Thank you for the info! I do have one further question: if I make a simplified arrangement of a song, just by sitting at the piano and picking it out, when I write it out for a student, can I get in trouble if I put the original composer, but list my name as the arranger?
    For example, I did a simplified version of “How Far I’ll Go” from Disney’s Moana for a beginner student and I listed the composers on the sheet music, but listed myself as the arranger/simplifier.

    Thank you for answering and researching Wendy! We have been playing monkey theory all week!

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