Monday, October 22, 2012

Copyrighting your own material

Again remember that this process may be slightly different from country to country. Here is the Canadian version of the story. You can be reasonably well assured that the information here will be at least similar to laws and procedures in most other developed nations.

Technically, you own the copyright to a piece of music the moment you first create it.

If only it were that simple....

Although a moral victory here, the crux of the matter is that this is usually only worth disputing when the time comes when someone needs to make a claim. Then, for all practical purposes, you need to prove that you composed it, or the other person needs to prove that you didn't (or that they did). You'd be laughed out of court if you said, "Hey, I thought of it first. I had all the ideas in my head and then this person came along and stole my idea!" Almost equally preposterous would be, "I played this song once when he was over, and now he recorded it, so I should be entitled to the royalties!" Yeah... prove it. The other guy proceeds to show evidence of owning the work while you sit there insisting that you played it first.

Assigning the work to a fixed medium is generally considered a critical step in this process. This could be something as simple as your lyrics on a sheet of paper, or as developed as a full-on recording of the whole composition in full production.

The next step, now that you have a physical product to show that you owned it, is to prove the date on which you owned it. It is taken as truth that if you are the first owner, then you must also be the creator. (although, technically, it doesn't matter who created it - what matters is who owns the copyright NOW)

The most formal way is to file an official copyright. You can do this on a title-by-title basis. You can also record an album and copyright that as an album of works. Either way, the fee is the same. Obviously, it makes more sense to copyright your collection of works at once. In its most simplest terms, all you need to do is get on line, fill out the paperwork, submit your fee of $50 (if online... more if done on paper), and you're good to go. Although a legal declaration and registration, no lawyer is typically involved in this process.


It is worth noting that even a formal copyright boils down to paying someone to file a piece of paper that says you owned the song/s on a certain date. It does not provide a guarantee that you are not infringing on someone else's copyright (ie. no searches of prior works are done, with your work being compared to other copyrighted works); nor does it mean that they will help you enforce the copyright. (ie. they won't be on the alert to make sure nobody is stealing your work). It is up to you, as the owner of the work, to enforce the copyright, and to be responsible for any liabilities or rewards that that work entails.

Although not entirely idiot-proof, this is your 'best bet' for securing the protection you need for your material. It is akin to protecting your physical property by double dead-bolting the doors, barring the windows, and having a hungry pit-bull patrolling the perimeter. If someone wants in bad enough.... they'll find a way.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, you can choose to simply do nothing and not worry about it. Although this seems foolish on the surface, consider that there are a lot of us who have left the house without locking the door who have come home to find everything perfectly untouched. Mind you, there's a big difference between leaving a plasma TV on your front lawn and hiding some knick-knack under your mattress... the odds of theft are in direct proportion to the value of the property and the ease of access to it.

It's the in-between stuff that leads to some odd discussions....

The 'poor man's copyright' - The old 'put it in the mail and send it to yourself' trick. In doing so, you have a government stamp from the post office that shows the date of sending, thereby 'proving' that you owned the contents of the envelope on that date. (for goodness sake... DON'T open the envelope....) It's not the worst thing you can do, but it is miles from idiot-proof. Think of it as akin to leaving your bike out in the yard and merely closing the gate to the yard. It will be fine for most people most of the time - but if you think that your bike will never ever go missing.... well.... you get the idea. That said, a friend of mine who has a string of gold and platinum albums (who is now releasing albums independently) is an advocate of this style of copyright. (though technically not a copyright...) His rationale is that if someone else infringes on your work, they're either going to make next to nothing on it (so, really... why be upset?), or will be backed by a major label who will have a team of high-priced entertainment lawyers on retainer to go and fight the case for far longer and far harder than you will be able to afford. The old, "if they want to get in bad enough.... they will" thinking.

Now, there are a couple of different levels of this one. If you simply send it regular letter mail, there is a very good chance that someone could suggest that the envelope was tampered with. You'll be hard-pressed to prove it. You could add an extra level of 'official-ness' to it by sending it registered mail. It makes it a little more convincing, but you still can't prove you didn't tamper with the envelope. You could send it to a lawyer and get them to file it for you. It will cost you a fee, of course, to do this, but you will have the added bonus of a 'disinterested third party' who can guarantee you haven't tampered with it, because they had the envelope in safe keeping. Of course, if you're going to go through all that trouble... might as well spend the $50 and do it officially.

Considering the basic premises of:
-prove you owned it on a certain date
-have that proof be from a disinterested third party
-have that proof be a source that is regulated by law to keep accurate records

Here is what we did (no formal copyright is in place, but our paper trail is decidedly convincing)
1. Songs are registered with SOCAN and CMRRA. Titles, dates and running times are logged but no lyrics or melodic content. They are disinterested third parties, and the nature of their business depends on having accurate records. If we can produce one song, say, called "Cool Like You" of a duration of 3:24 seconds, dated July of 2006, what are the odds of us having *another* song called Cool Like You, though with a different running time from the same year? Compound that further by asking "what are the odds of us having ten songs, all with duplicate titles, but all different from the ones on the album, all written in the same year? Not bloody likely. As long as we can produce an original copy of the CD with the exact same songs, running times, etc., then it is highly improbable (and practically impossibly unlikely) that the songs in question are not the ones on the CD.
2. The receipt for duplication of the CD. Dated, track listing, song lengths. Can easily be matched up with any other copy of the CD. See above rationale.
3. A copy of our CD is in the "Library and Archives Canada" - our national archive. Our laws state that these archives must maintain accurate records, including date of receipt, etc.
4. We have recordings of a couple of our songs being played on commercial radio and network television. By law (see above about performance royalties), these institutions are required to log what songs they play and when they were played. Their records will show that we did not tamper with the recordings that we made from their media source.

Here are some not-so-effective things that I, personally, wouldn't trust and why:
1. Date-stamps on your computer - though these may suggest that the file was created on a certain date, there is no disinterested third party proof that you did not tamper with your Windows clock.  With a few mouse clicks, you can create a file that will appear to have been created on January 1, 1980 - long before most people even owned a computer!
2. YouTube/MySpace media posts - although these may be date stamped, and done so by a disinterested third party, I wouldn't place my bets that they are strictly regulated to keep their dates and times accurate. Meh... maybe.
3. A live recording of a rehearsal or gig - how will you prove when it was recorded or that it wasn't tampered with?

Ultimately, like anything else, it comes down to this:
How valuable is it, and to what lengths and costs are you willing to go to protect it? If it goes to court and it costs you $5000 in legal and court costs, would that be worth it to you? Are you *that* sure you would win? What if their lawyers dragged it out to an end cost of $50 000? Still worth it? Still just as confident you'll win?

And sure, if you win, you'll *probably* get to pin the other side for the court and legal fees, but how much time and effort will it have taken for you to go the distance? Still worth it?

It is rare that anyone who works professionally in the industry will steal your work. Most of the thieves out there who will try this are desperate amateurs who will only do so if they think they can get away with it. If you can convince *them* that they won't get away with it, you won't need to get a judge to do it for you.


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