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Copyright for Songwriters and Composers

If you write, create or record original music, protecting your work is a priority. The MU is here to help with detailed guidance and information on music copyright law in the UK.

Last updated: 05 December 2023

What is copyright law?

In general terms, 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. Find out more advice on copyright and primary infringements of copyright.

Key points about copyright

  • Copyright of a musical work can only exist where it is written down or recorded in some tangible form. It cannot exist in a mere idea alone
  • Unlike some other countries, in the UK a work doesn’t need to be registered to attain copyright protection. As soon as a work is written or recorded it is automatically covered
  • Copyright law is guided by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. The legislation specifies rights for different author types, including composer and songwriting copyright.

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.

In the event of a dispute, it’s good practice to have clear evidence dating from when a work was created, so for your peace of mind, you can:

  • Send yourself a copy of the recording or manuscript by Special Delivery and store it, unopened, in a secure place. The date and time stamp are important
  • For written material, photograph a copy of your work with that day’s newspaper and store securely. This evidences the date when the work was created
  • Again for written material, sign, date, and have a signed witness to that signature directly on a copy
  • Burn a file to a format that can’t then be altered and ensure it is date stamped
  • Upload a copy to cloud storage where date changes cannot be altered
  • Register the work with PRS
  • Keep any wav/mp3 files with original stems and DAW project files, ensuring dates are clear on separate drives and unalterable backup
  • Log a copy of any audio file or written material with a family solicitor, or other logged storage facility, including any commercial copyright registration service

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