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Copyright Advice for Songwriters and Composers

A guide to UK copyright law, proving and protecting your songwriting or composition copyright.

Last updated: 02 February 2021

Copyright is a ‘property’ right. This means that the owner of the right, who can be the author or any person to whom the author has assigned it, has the exclusive right to authorise or prevent others from using their work in various ways. A ‘musical work’ consists entirely of music.

The words (or lyrics) of a song are a ‘literary work’. Both are protected in the same way. Copyright in a musical or literary work lasts for 70 years after the end of the year in which the author dies. The musical work then becomes public property or ‘public domain’.

It should be noted that it is not possible to copyright the title of a song. Read a comprehensive list of copyright related FAQs, plus a list of the primary infringements of copyright here.

Who owns the song copyright?

The composer of the music and the writer of the lyrics are the first owners of copyright in them. If you co-write, agree with your co-writers how the copyright and income generated by the songs will be divided. If you are in a band, agree whether the songs are a partnership asset or belong solely to the writers. If a song is co-composed, the MU advises all contributors to sign and date a short agreement setting out the name of the song, the names of the contributors and their respective shares in the song, and whether that share is in respect of words only, music only, or words and music,e.g. Max Smith 25% (words)/Zoe Jones 75% (words/music).

Without a song share agreement, a publisher or the courts may infer equal contributions, and the potential for dispute between contributors (say if the songwriting partnership splits up) is greatly increased.

A specimen MU Song Share Agreement with explanatory notes is available to download.

How do I prove and protect my music copyright?

UK law states that copyright does not exist until a musical or literary work is recorded in some material form, for instance, it is written down or embodied in a sound recording. Unlike in some other countries, registration is not required for copyright protection. However, in cases where there is a dispute about the ‘originality’ or ‘authorship’ of a particular work, it can help to produce evidence establishing the date when the work was created.

You can get proof by:

  • Depositing a copy with a responsible person and obtaining a dated receipt
  • Posting yourself a copy of the recording/manuscript by Special Delivery and storing it, unopened, in a secure place
  • Using the MU’s Copyright Registration Service for members