Whether or not you appreciate our play on Stravinsky’s groundbreaking “Rites of Spring,” as an independent songwriter it’s absolutely vital that—to quote Joe Strummer of the Clash— you know your rights.
To help make that plan, we’ll do a quick rundown of all the ways you can make the most of your finished song. These rights can include:
Before we begin, let’s clear up a common misconception. Some songwriters believe they don’t actually own their work until they’ve filed a formal copyright. In truth, the moment you decide that your song is finished and it exists in some tangible form—such as a demo recording or a lead sheet—it is your intellectual property.
This means that you own the copyright for that composition, and with that, earn a set of rights to exploit your song in a number of ways. That said, there are some circumstances in which you may want to file a formal copyright. When in doubt, consult legal advice or the copyright office website.
Ready? Let’s review your rights!
Performing Your Song
It may seem obvious, but in fact, this is an important right, and one of the most potentially impactful. As the copyright owner you have certain rights surrounding the public performance of your works, meaning you license them via your collection society so you can collect royalties from radio play, TV broadcasts, live performances, streaming, etc. In addition, you’re obviously able to go out and publicly perform your song in a public venue. However, you can't stop someone else from performing your song or be sued for performing a song you don’t control.
Streaming Your Song
Another seemingly obvious right is the ability to have you or you distributor upload your songs to streaming platforms. While having the right to any monies earned from streaming your own song may seem self-evident, payouts from digital streaming services have historically been both inconsistent and wracked with fraud, so make sure you do your research and know what the payout rates are.
Are your songs on Spotify? Do you have over 10K streams? Estimate your song’s potential royalties with our Royalty Estimator.
Distributing Your Song
No matter the merits of your musical creation, if it isn’t able to be distributed to your audience, there’s little chance it will earn you any compensation. Fortunately, the right to distribute your work—whether through homemade CDs, your personal website or a dedicated distribution platform such as CD Baby or Distrokid—is one of a songwriter’s principal rights.
Reproducing Your Song
In the increasingly digital landscape, physical reproduction of your song—whether on CDs, vinyl or any other physical format—is increasingly rare. But while streams currently account for roughly 75% of all music industry revenue, demand for vinyl and cassette tapes is growing. And as the songwriter, you have the right to produce those physical copies yourself or contract with a manufacturer to do so on your behalf. "Reproduction" also includes digital downloads, and this means that anyone else who wants to reproduce a copy of your song (whether by releasing the primary recording or a cover) needs to pay you a license fee.
Creating Derivative Works
In this case, “derivative” has a very specific meaning: It’s a piece of music that is heavily based upon another musical work. As the songwriter of the original work, you have the right to change it, adapt it, or transform it as you see fit. Conversely, another songwriter could not borrow substantially from your work and call it their own (see “Blurred Lines” vs. “Got to Give It Up” for one recent example).
That said, other artists can make use of your copyrighted work if it falls under what’s called “Fair Use.” Put simply, people can make limited, derivative copies of pre-existing works if it’s done for parody, educational purposes, commentary, criticism, or other similar reasons.
Creating Visual Representations of Your Song
This may be the least-invoked right of the songwriter, but that’s not to say it’s unimportant. It applies to representations of musical works—for instance, the lyrics and sheet music—as opposed to the sound recording itself.
More commonly, this right protects audiovisual material containing your copyrighted work, such as music videos. Any time someone wants to use a song in conjunction with a moving picture, they need to secure a sync license (and pay a fee) with the songwriters/publishers of that song.
We hope this gives you a solid grounding in your basic rights as a songwriter, and some of the ways you can use those rights both to protect your intellectual property and to earn money through their performance or playback.
Maximize Songtrust for Your Songs and Business
We created this guide to answer a simple question: How do songwriters support themselves?
The answer is not as simple as we’d like, but our goal is to make it as clear, transparent and understandable as we possibly can.
Songtrust is more than just a rights management platform and publishing administrator - we’re a team of experts in the music community who strive to educate, support, and provide thought leadership to creators, representatives, and businesses across the music industry.
Our hope is that you’ll finish this guide with an better understanding of the business behind songwriting and have actionable resources to help you be successful. Included is an extensive glossary, too; if you see a term in bold in the text, you’ll find it in the glossary at the end.