THE COPYRIGHT CONUNDRUM (THEY’RE STEALING MY SONGS!)
It is one of the most hotly debated subjects when it comes to songwriting in the modern age. There are two distinct schools of thought. The COPYRIGHT AND REGISTER EVERYTHING RIGHT NOW RIGHT NOW RIGHT NOW!!!!! These are usually from newer or less experienced writers and artists, (and their attorneys) who think everything they do is profound and amazing and that there are thousands of people just lying in the weeds waiting to STEAL THEIR IDEAS AND SONGS!!!
And the old grizzled veterans, writers, publishers, labels, producers, etc. that know everything sounds like something else, and it is much harder to come up with an ORIGINAL concept, unique melody, or idea that hasn’t been done to death, often before most writers were born.
These people tend to write a LOT of songs, do rudimentary work tapes, perform or have them performed out, test marketing songs until they get the best of the best, and when they get tangible attention, then start the copyright registration process.
They know that most pro writers will write literally HUNDREDS of songs just to get a few that get sincere attention and the rest often get tossed on the “good idea at the time” pile, often forgotten and left behind.
They also know that BILLIONS of songs are “released” a month, uploaded to web sites, you tube, Spotify, Pandora or the countless Internet sites out there. A LOT of stuff.
So what to do?
Well the truth is WHAT EVER YOU FEEL COMFORTABLE WITH. Technically, you have a COPYRIGHT as soon as it is affixed to a tangible form, meaning that if you have it on a work tape, a guitar or piano vocal, the lyrics written down on an affixed form, you are protected from the “time the pen leaves the paper.” So you are protected. With today’s time stamps on computers, and the Internet, you can prove when YOU came up with something. To have a case in court, you have to have it REGISTERED with the US Library of Congress. And you have to PROVE that someone deliberately intended to defraud you. And that is where it gets tricky.
Proving that someone actually FOUND you among all the songs and writers, and said “I like that idea, I can write that better” and defrauded you of being able to make money is a tough thing to prove. How do they find you in the first place if you are not a known quantity? That is the reason most copyright lawsuits are when one major songwriter or artist sues ANOTHER major songwriter or artist.
There are surprisingly FEW lawsuits that ever go forward. The reason is that they are very expensive, and hard to prove.
And in most cases, someone “SUBCONSCIOUSLY” picked up parts of other songs, and just put it into their own, without even realizing it. The most famous of these would be the GEORGE HARRISON/BRIGHT TUNES “MY SWEET LORD/HE’S SO FINE lawsuit.
The case, which went on for 13 years and cost a fortune, proved that the Ex-Beatle had accidentally lifted parts of a song from 20 years before.
That happens a lot. I have personally found myself IN THE ROUND at the BLUEBIRD with my latest creation, that I was so proud of and about to play, only to realize that I had accidentally copied ONE OF THE PEOPLE I WAS IN THE ROUND WITH when I heard their song, years before.
Sometimes it can be intentional. Rock artist, Kid Rock, did this years ago with a song called “SINGING SWEET HOME ALABAMA ALL SUMMER LONG”, where he purposely used guitar chords and instrumental passages from two songs, SWEET HOME ALABAMA, from LYNYRD SKYNYRD, and “WEREWOLVES OF LONDON” by WARREN ZEVON. Kid Rock actually gave songwriting credit to all the writers of those songs. Same with “Listening to Old Alabama” by Brad Paisley, where he referenced many songs from the Country super group.
Sometimes, like the Sam Hunt/Allen Thicke “BLURRED LINES” MARVIN GAYE lawsuit can be accidental and go forward, but most are worked out behind the scene. The Late Tom Petty was a beneficiary of this a while back.
And then there are some nasty ones. The Rapper FRANK OCEAN, who sampled the EAGLES HOTEL CALIFORNIA tracks, music and all, then put his rap lyrics over the looped music, was a particularly bad one. When contacted by Mr. Frey and Henley, to gently tell him that he couldn’t do that, he told them less than politely to go “screw themselves!” That was a bad one.
So there are all kinds of extenuating circumstances involved in this. And each writer is going to have to make their own decisions.
Most professionals don’t do the entire registration on songs until they pass several tests and work their way to the top. Many don’t even do it until the songs are almost ready to be released commercially. A lot of this is due to costs, but also because elements of songs, lyrics, music, production, etc, can be changed even IN THE STUDIO, so instead of having to go back in and re-copyright or do changes on songs, they will wait until everything is final.
I would suggest first WRITING MORE SONGS, and then doing the best as a COLLECTION of your work. But do what feels comfortable for you. In most cases, you are going to find that there are no new ideas under the sun and find a lot of things you thought were so original and unique, actually less much less original than you realized.
For myself, I like to adhere to the saying of a friend of mine, hit songwriter and former president of NSAI, Steve Bogard.
“You spend the first half of your career worrying about people stealing your songs.
You spend the second half of your career worrying about having something worth stealing.”
Write a lot of songs. Work through them. Get them perfect. Write more songs. Then when you have the ones you and others ABSOLUTELY LOVE, go copyright those.
THEN WRITE MORE SONGS.