An instrumental work receives copyright protection as soon as it has been written down or recorded. Registration with the U.S. Copyright office is not required; however, registering an instrumental work helps protect your rights in several important ways. It helps prove that you own the work, it lets you sue an infringer, and if you win a lawsuit it lets you collect attorney's fees and collect damages without proving that you actually lost money. Because of this, copyright registration is probably a good idea if there is any chance that someone will copy your music illegally.
An instrumental work generally has two parts: the musical composition itself, written by a composer, and recordings of one or more musicians playing the music. These two parts are treated as separate works under U.S. copyright law. Generally, the composition is owned by the composer and the recording is owned by the musician.
Read More: How to Copyright Original Artwork
Decide which form to use. You generally register the composition itself as a "work of the performing arts" using Form PA. A recording would be registered as a "sound recording" using form SR. If you want to register both at the same time, use form SR.
Decide whether to register online. The Copyright Office recommends online registration because it is faster and cheaper. You can also submit electronic copies of your work instead of mailing hard copies if the work is unpublished or only published electronically. If you want to register online, go to the "Electronic Copyright Office" on the U.S Copyright Office website and follow the instructions to register and log in. Otherwise, print out the appropriate form.
Fill out the registration form. The electronic and paper versions require the same information about you and your instrumental work. If you are registering a composition and a recording together, make sure you list the composer and the musician separately, even if they are both the same person. If you have trouble with the forms, you may want to consult a copyright attorney or an online legal document service.
Pay the filing fee. If you are registering online, you can use a credit or debit card. Otherwise, write a check for the appropriate amount. You can find the current fees on the U.S. Copyright Office website.
Prepare copies of the instrumental work. If you are registering a composition you will need copies of the lead sheet or sheet music. If you are registering a recording, you will need copies of the recording. Either way, make two copies if the work has been published and one copy if it has not. There is an exception for published compositions that only exist as recordings, are published by "rental, lease, or lending," or are part of collective works. In all three cases, you only need to send one copy.
Complete your application. If you are registering online, either submit the copies of your work electronically or enter information about mailing them in. If you mail them, make sure to do it within 30 days. If you are registering by mail, send the Copyright Office your completed form, payment and copies of your work.
The Copyright Office will take several months to process your registration, but the registration is effective from the time it receives your application.
If you have written a collection of musical pieces and haven't published them yet, you can probably register the whole collection with one form (and thus pay only one fee). See "Copyright Basics" on the Copyright Office website for details.
David Hastings has been writing professionally since 2007. His work includes articles on law, public policy, and debate, as well as analyses of more than 250 court cases for The Freedom Foundation. He holds a J.D. from Oak Brook College of Law.