Everything You Need To Know About Music Copyright Laws

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Music Copyright Laws Explained the Easy Way

Understanding American music copyright laws is no easy feat. Expressions like copyright notice and copyright claim, DMCA protection, or copyright infringement may sound complicated to someone who is beginning their journey as a music creator.

If you’ve started writing songs and wonder how to copyright your work to avoid stealing or how long the copyright lasts, this article will shed some more light on this complicated topic.

What Is Music Copyright?

Copyright, in general, is a concept that marks ownership over some intellectual property and grants rights on how that property can be handled. When it comes to music, copyright tells us who a certain song or recording belongs to and who can distribute, reproduce, and earn money from it.

To those not familiar with the intricacies of copyright laws regarding music, it may seem that one song equals one copyright, but that’s not the case. Every recorded composition involves two copyright sets:

  • Compositional copyright—Belongs to those who created the song itself, including the melodies, note arrangements, lyrics, etc.
  • Sound recording copyright—Belongs to the performing artist or their record label and refers only to the specific recording of the underlying composition

In some cases, both copyrights can belong to one person if a single artist writes and records their music. All of the potential income from sales will go to you. If you write a song and someone else records it, the singer will have the sound recording copyright, but you will also receive royalties because you own the compositional copyright-like Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix for the song All Along The Watchtower.

How Does Music Copyright Work?

As soon as you finish a song and record it on paper, even if it’s a bar napkin, your compositional copyright kicks in. As per the United States Copyright Office, sound recording copyright requires you to fix it in a format such as a disk, tape, digital track, or similar, so it can be reproduced and perceived appropriately.

In case you’re wondering how copyright works if you end up in court for infringement, that is a different story. In case you want to send demand letters to for infringement and be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees if you win the case, you will need to officially register your music with the Copyright Office and pay for it.

How To Officially Copyright a Song

Enforcing your exclusive authorship rights, like suing someone for copyright infringement, is possible upon registration. You can choose to do it on your own or hire a lawyer specializing in copyright legislation for professional help.

The registration process is simple:

  1. Create your account on the website of the U.S. Copyright Office
  2. Hit Register and fill the registration form
  3. Pay the registration fee
  4. Upload a copy of your song as sheet music or an audio file

Online registrations are considerably cheaper and more convenient since the registration fee is either $45 or $65, depending on the circumstances. Paper registration costs $125, and you will need to send physical copies of your song in an appropriate format (printed sheet music or a CD).

Available payment methods are in the table below:

Registration TypePayment Method


  • Credit cards (Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover)
  • Debit card
  • Copyright Office deposit account
  • Automated Clearing House (ACH) debit


  • Check
  • Copyright Office deposit account
  • Money order payable to the U.S. Copyright Office

Receiving your certificate can extend to several months or more than a year. If you find yourself needing the certificate sooner than that, you can expedite the registration for $800.

Most Important Copyright Rules on Music

The Copyright Act of 1976, codified in Title 17 of the United States Code, is the main piece of legislation on copyright in general, including music. The main takeaways from existing legislation are:

  • The rule of originality—The copyrighted content must be new and original work which can be proven in court
  • Copyright law violations—Copyright infringement cases are settled in a court of law, and the infringer will have to pay out in case that they copied registered work and the copy is sustainably similar to the original
  • Record labels administer master recording copyrights—The most common scenario refers to record labels that sign the artist beforehand, pay for the recording, and own the master copyright, sharing profits with the artist depending on the contract
  • Publishers administer compositional copyrights—Similarly to record labels, publishers usually hold the compositional copyrights, but the author always has a share (50%, in most cases)
  • Copyrights are valid during the author’s lifetime and an additional 70 years—While in some cases copyrights may expire 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, music becomes public domain 70 years after the last writer dies
  • Cover versions—To record and distribute a cover song, you need a mechanical license that can be obtained from various licensing companies like Harry Fox Agency, Easy Song Licensing, and TuneLicensing. Performing a cover version in a live show doesn’t require any special permits

Copyright Laws on Playing Music

If you’re wondering whether it’s allowed to play copyrighted music in a business, the simple answer is no. Check out the following list for more specific information:

  1. Using streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music for playing music in a business is not allowed since they are meant for consumers and non-commercial use
  2. You cannot play purchased digital songs as background music in a commercial setting since it counts as a public performance and requires a Public Performance License (PPL)
  3. You can get an appropriate license from performing rights organizations (PROs) like the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) or Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) and play only the music from their catalogs
  4. Blanket licenses that include all performing rights organizations are the best deal because artists associated with a particular song can be affiliated with different PROs
  5. Failing to obtain the relevant license may lead to damages ranging from $750 to $150,000 per played song

Protect Your Music With DoNotPay

Another important music copyright law is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998, which allows music creators stronger protection of their content on the internet. If you created a piece of music and heard it on some website or in a YouTube video without your authorization, DoNotPay will help you create an efficient DMCA takedown notice to stop the infringement.

If you lack the time or in-depth knowledge of relevant legislation and terminology, our platform provides a great service that will write a takedown notice on your behalf in a matter of minutes. The process is fast and simple:

  1. Open your DoNotPay account in a of your choice
  2. Choose the DMCA Takedown feature from the homepage
  3. Tell us some basic details about your work and the infringement
  4. Provide your contact details and verify your identity
  5. Click on Sign and Submit

Providing proof of ownership will increase the chances of success, but our takedown notices work even if you haven’t copyrighted your content.

DoNotPay Is an Expert in Other Administrative Issues

Once you prevent infringement of your creative work, you don’t have to close DoNotPay for good. Our platform is overflowing with other useful features that you can access from your favorite .

Our portfolio includes the following solutions to your paperwork woes:

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