How to Copyright a Song for Free in the UK

Are you a music maker? Do you want to protect yourself against song theft?

If you’re a songwriter you need to know how to copyright a song for free in the UK. The process is simple, but if you neglect to follow it, you may find others laying claim to your work, or freely using it without paying you royalties. 

In this article, we’ll explain what you need to do to lay claim to your tunes and lyrics – without paying a penny. 

How to copyright a song for free in the UK

As a songwriter, you can copyright your music for free. When you write original music it becomes your special creation and you place great value on it. Therefore it’s worth protecting with copyright. When you write a song or perform some music you obtain copyright on that work. 

However, you should take steps to prevent anyone from copying it or making claim to the song by having proof of your ownership. As soon as you create the song you have copyright automatically, which is free. But the simple act of mailing yourself a copy of your song and keeping it in a sealed dated envelope will help to establish when it was created.

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Copyright law UK

The Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 states that copyright is a property right. As well as the music this covers literary, dramatic and artistic works. It also covers sound recordings, films and broadcasts. Copyright gives the creator the exclusive right to copy, adapt, communicate, lend or sell copies of the work. This allows you to control the way in which your material may be used.  The law protects the intellectual property of individuals and requires that the permission of the owner is sought before any use is made of the work. 

How to copyright UK

Copyrighting a song 

Although there are small charges for copyrighting and online registration, it is possible to create evidence of song ownership for free in various ways. It’s important to save a physical copy of your work to establish when it was created. When you’ve written the lyrics and chords and melody, you need to record a demo and music video. Upload it privately and register your work with a collection society. 

How to save your work 

Once your piece of music is created, you should record and document it to prove your ownership. You could mail the physical copy to yourself by recorded delivery, or store it somewhere like your bank. To provide legal proof it must be time stamped and remain sealed. Emailing or saving the work, which provides proof of date, is another way. Although sending yourself a copy by recorded delivery is stronger evidence as it will have your name attached. 

How can I copyright my music for free UK?

Owner’s rights

If you write a really good song the chances are that other musicians may want to perform it. Owning the copyright means you have sole authority to copy the music, to perform it, to rent out or lend it. Also to broadcast via radio, TV and internet.  You could also issue copies for sale or promotion. 

So how does copyright protect you? 

The most important thing is that copyright protects your work and stops others from using it without your permission. You can mark your work with the copyright symbol, your name and the year you created it. This means no one else can play your work in public, adapt it or put it on the internet.  You can protect your work in other countries through international agreements such as the Berne Convention, a world intellectual property organisation. 

How much does it cost to copyright a song UK?

In theory, the cost is zero. However, you may want to sign up to a collection society, to get your royalties. And there will be an outlay for this (more on collection societies shortly). Or you may want to record your track to ensure the copyright, this will also cost you some money – even if you do it at home, you’ll need the kit. The cheapest way to copyright a song is to record it on a device you own and write down the notes and lyrics. 

How to copyright a song on youtube

But what about covers on YouTube?

Thousands of songs a month are posted, many are cover songs, and these songs are usually protected by copyright.  If the song is posted without permission from the copyright holder, it is an infringement. Should the copyright owner complain to YouTube, your video may be removed. Some people take chances and are repeat offenders. This can result in their channel being permanently deleted. However, you can obtain licences that allow you to post the music and an accompanying video. 

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The song’s copyright owner can give you a mechanical license if you pay a royalty fee, and this would cover the audio portion of the song. If you post a video with the song, a synchronisation, or ‘sync’ license is needed.  Posting a cover without permission can result in it being removed,  although some copyright owners don’t mind as it increases the song’s exposure to a new audience. But before posting a cover song it’s very important to consider the consequences and understand which licences are required to do it legally. 

Ways to use royalty-free music 

Streaming and social media platforms usually have strict rules regarding music. Using non-copyrighted music is required by platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and others. You can use non copyrighted songs to create videos on YouTube which will look and sound professional and attract more followers. Another advantage is being able to use royalty-free music in public, and download tracks online. If you want to enhance your music videos there are thousands of non-copyrighted tracks available online. 

How do you copyright a song for free? 

Transferring and registering work

Both the Performing Rights Society (PRS) and Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) can act on your behalf. As a member of these societies, you give permission for them to protect your rights and collect royalties on your behalf. You are responsible for registering each work. Some cost does come into the equation here. You will have to pay the PRSto act on your behalf. 

It’s well worth the outlay. As a PRS member, you transfer your rights to perform or play your work in public, including live performances radio and TV, films, adverts, streaming, downloading, ringtones and phone hold music. The PRS would monitor music use and collect due royalties. The MCPS acts on your behalf by administering the rights to copy your work, such as pressing CDs and creating digital downloads, and issuing copies for sale, promotion or lending and renting to the public.

Copyright infringement 

Some of the biggest artists have been accused of copyright infringement over the years. Being sued for copying music or plagiarism can be a damaging and expensive business. And although most cases are settled out of court, a plagiarism claim can go to trial. Many songs sound similar but sometimes chord progressions, riffs and small sections of a song can be the cause of disputes. 

In 1970 George Harrison had his solo number one with “My Sweet Lord”. But The Chiffons’ songwriter Ronnie Mack noticed the similarities with their classic soul number “He’s So Fine”, and a plagiarism lawsuit was filed. The judge ruled it was subconscious plagiarism and a sum of half a million dollars was reportedly paid out. Marvin Gaye’s estate has sued Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and Ed Sheeran. Many others have been involved in famous infringement cases. 

Sheet music copyright laws UK

Songs that are not copyrighted 

Finding songs that are not protected by copyright can be a minefield. In fact, copyrights on some songs have been deemed invalid. “Happy birthday” is an example of this as Warner/Chappell Music enforced copyright on the song since 1949, meaning they could charge commercial users a royalty. This applied to use in films and public performances for profit. An independent documentary filmmaker decided to research into the chain of title of the copyright, which proved that Warner/Chappell didn’t actually own such copyright. The company subsequently had to repay millions of dollars of royalties. 

‘Happy Birthday’ is sung every day in many countries across the world and no royalty payments are needed. ‘We Shall Overcome’ is another song for which companies had to pay royalties. But in 2018, after two years of litigation, the song is now in the public domain. Non-copyrighted music is also referred to as royalty-free music, which means that you can use it for your projects and performances. 

Music in the public domain 

Songs and music not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, are in the public domain, meaning the public owns the work, not an individual artist. Such music would be free for you to use. Generally speaking, music, along with other creative works enters the public domain 50 to 75 years after the death of the creator. Although the length of copyright protection varies from country to country. In some cases, the rights holder may have placed the music in the public domain through copyright abandonment. In the case of some very old music no rights ever applied. Perhaps because it predates the existence of intellectual property. 

Free music copyright

Sound recording copyright UK

What about copyright for musicians who make recordings? 

If you create a recording yourself, or if you write a song, copyright designates ownership of that song to you. If you work with a label there’s a chance that the label controls the copyright.  Recording rights are usually owned by the record label. However, in some situations, the artist can retain the rights to their own recordings. The Musicians’ Union can give sound advice and guidance on what can be a complicated issue. 

Take advice if you’re recording music, as the owner of the music and lyrics is not automatically the owner of the recording. For sound recordings, copyright becomes null and void seventy years from the end of the calendar year of release. That’s if it was first released after 1963. If a song was published before 1925 it should be in the public domain. But make sure you have evidence of this, as publishers copyright new arrangements of public domain works, such as choral arrangements or classical music. Public domain music is free for you to listen to, download and use for any reason. 

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Do remember that all music played in public requires the permission of the copyright holders before it can be featured. It’s not just a case of protecting your own work. You should also protect yourself from legal action by obeying these rules. To avoid infringing on someone’s copyright get explicit permission to share the content, or even better, create your own. 

Related Questions

How do I get permission to use a song?

You must ask the writer for their permission – this usually involves paying a fee, although some venues have the rights to play certain songs. This will usually be in the form of a sync licence if using it for a moving image, or via a music library from somewhere like TikTok and YouTube. 

Who is the wealthiest songwriter?

Paul McCartney has not only penned the most number-one songs in the UK (along with fellow Beatle John Lennon) but has earned the most from those songs. As he outlived his collaborator, he has gone on to write more music. And those royalties still roll in for the singer-songwriter. 

How long does copyright last?

For literary works or lyrics, the rule is the life of the author plus seventy years.  For musical works, it’s the life of the composer plus seventy years, but in the case of co-written works of joint authorship, it’s the life of the last surviving author plus seventy years. 

Have you copyrighted a song for free in the UK? Did you encounter any issues with it? Let us know and share links to the tunes you’ve penned in the comments below.

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