How to Copyright a Song in the UK 

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If you want to earn a living from your music, you’ll need to learn how to copyright a song in the UK. This is a legal process that ensures you’ll always be rewarded for the airtime your song is given so that no one else can claim it as theirs.  

Do you write and create your own tracks by yourself or with others? In this article, we’ll look at the ways you can copyright your music and what’s involved. 

How to copyright a song in the UK 

Copyright isn’t only for musicians, although it is an important part of the music industry. It’s so named because it gives you the exclusive right to copy it, lend it to others or rent it out. Copyright relates to books, plays, artwork, films, branding and much more. In the UK, copyright is created when music is written down or recorded.  

Under the UK law songs fall under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988. But just because you have copyright, doesn’t mean you’ll automatically earn money from it – there are further steps to take to ensure that happens and to ensure the copyright is enforced. It may be shared with one or multiple other people, depending on who created it.  

Music copyright laws UK 

how can music copyright be broken

Music copyright includes both the right to the song and the recording, known as the master copyright. The master is the final version of a recording. All CDs, vinyl records or digital tracks are versions of this master – copies made with a license to copy the master. 

A single song has the potential to be made into multiple different recordings. This creates different copyrights for each master of the recording. Permission from the owner of the publishing needs to be given. The right to reproduce a song in a sound recording is known as the mechanical license and a recording can’t be created for commercial purposes without this right. So you can publish your own song, but not a cover of someone else’s without their permission (which usually involves a fee).  

Having these two separate rights means that one songwriter can license their song to multiple recording artists. It also means that the songwriter will receive royalties for each sale or performance of the song, whether live or through the broadcast of the recording. The songwriter won’t receive any royalties attributed to the master copyright of the sound recording. 

How to copyright your music UK 

So you’re ready to copyright some songs. Copyright won’t protect your ideas if they stay in your head. There is no way to prove you’ve created an idea if it hasn’t been expressed in a tangible form. This is why you need to write your works down, timestamp them or register them with a publisher or collection society. The first things you need to do is create a master copy and get it out there. Here are some of the steps you can take to begin.  

  1. Write down the song chords and melody 
  2. Record a demo 
  3. Record a music video 
  4. Upload a copy of your recording privately to Soundcloud, YouTube or a similar  
  5. Register with a collection society 

You have a choice of a couple of collection societies, depending on your circumstances. PRS for music will likely be the most relevant, and joining has many benefits. 

How to copyright a song and get paid royalties 

PRS is a collection society for songwriters in the UK. They are responsible for collecting royalties generated by copyrighted music. Your song generates royalties from public performances. PRS distributes these royalties to you but will have to sign up with PRS and register your songs for this to happen. Once you sign up to PRS, they will pay the owner of the publishing the royalties they collect from venues, radio stations etc. If you keep your publishing rights, they will pay you directly. If you sign away your publishing rights to a publisher, you will receive a cut based on your agreement.  

MCPS, Mechanical Copyright Protection Society, also pays royalties to writers but is responsible for royalties from mechanical licenses. You will receive royalties if your song has been licensed for a recording and if that recording is commercially released or broadcast. Joining PRS for Music includes both PRS and MCPS. 

PPL, Phonographic Performance Limited, will pay royalties to the owner of the sound record recording master copyright. They will pay artists or record labels who own the master rights a royalty whenever a sound recording is performed. 

Copyright music UK rights 

So in summary: 

PRS will pay the owner of the publishing copyright royalties for the performance of the song when it is recorded and played on the radio.  

MCPS will pay the publishing owner royalties for the mechanical license to record the song, via PRS. 

PPL will pay a royalty to the owner of the master copyright for the performance of the recording. 

According to UK copyright law, literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works last 70 years after the author’s death, or 70 years after the creation should the author be unknown. This is applicable to songs and songwriter but not owners of master recording rights. 

Master recording rights are valid for 50 years after creation. However, when the work is released, it is then 70 years after the end of the year it was released. Many classic albums get remastered and released again. They are considered a new master recording and therefore, the copyright of that specific master will last 70 years after it was released. 

UK music copyright law 

How to copyright a song in the UK 

Exceptions to copyrighted works fall under the term fair use. The UK defines this as fair dealing. This can include using copyrighted works for the purposes of: 

  • Research 
  • Parody 
  • Teaching 
  • Private study 
  • Criticism or review 
  • News reporting 

The key issues surrounding fair dealing in the UK is whether the use of copyright caused a loss of income or was inappropriate. For example, it is an infringement if someone didn’t buy or stream a song because of a work claiming fair use or using than what was needed. 

Getting licenses can be a nuisance. There are those who want copyright laws to be abolished and believe that everything should be in the public domain. This is because they believe copyright is restrictive and inhibits creative freedom. However, it is important to remember the core purposes of copyright. 

  • Encourage the development of culture, science and innovation 
  • Provide a financial benefit to copyright holders for their works 
  • Facilitate access to knowledge and entertainment for the public. 

Our creative and cultural industries exist because of copyright and it shouldn’t be viewed as a problem. It also offers a way for creators across many disciplines to make a living. 

YouTube music copyright 

Another caveat to UK copyright law is YouTube. The platform has its own music policy directory that states which songs can’t be used or are restricted. You can use many copyrighted songs on your videos, but it means that ads will appear on your video, with the revenue going to the rights holder. 

YouTubers have historically got away with using music in their videos a great deal. However, due to new copyright legislation and improvements YouTube’s Content ID, this isn’t as easy as it used to be. YouTube’s Content ID automatically scans videos for copyrighted material by comparing the video and audio to files registered by rights holders. If your video has copyrighted material in it then that will flag up a Content ID claim, which will enable the rights holders to decide whether it’s used or not.  

International music copyright  

Be aware that music copyright law differs across countries. Nations tend to establish their own laws regarding copyright and this can affect the ways creators make and license intellectual property. 

In the United States, copyright protects original works in a tangible form across literary, musical and dramatic works. This is very similar to UK copyright law. Copyright is automatically created when the work is in a tangible form, also like the UK. However, unlike the UK, any work published before 1923 falls under the public domain in the USA. 

If you’ve created a brand new song, it’s time to take action. Make it available in a tangible form, establish who has a claim or any rights and register with PRS for music.  

Related Questions  

  • Can I use 10 seconds of a copyrighted song? 

Using any duration of a sound recording, no matter how long, will constitute an infringement unless you have permission. The owner of the recording had to license the song from the owner of the publishing. You need to acquire licenses for both the master and publishing. 

  • What is a sync license? 

Sync licensing is a legal agreement between two parties a music rights owner and someone who is looking to synchronise music to another form of media. This is typically for film, television and advertising but it can also be for video games, apps etc. 

  • Can YouTubers use music in their video? 

YouTubers can use YouTube directory music provided it hasn’t been blocked. Ads will appear in your video unless YouTube notifies that the song isn’t available for use. If the music isn’t in the directory or is blocked, you’re responsible for your own license.  

Do you write your own music? Have you got the copyright for a song in the UK? Share it in the comments below.