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Copyright Basics: Understanding the Difference Between a Sound Recording and a Composition


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Frequently, there is confusion between the fact that there are two copyrights in a recorded song. One is the composition, the song or the PA copyright. The other, is the sound recording, or the SR.

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Copyright Basics: Understanding the Difference Between a Sound Recording and a Composition

  1. 1. The composition or song copyright registration is also known as a PA (for Performing Arts). U.S. Copyright Law acknowledges a copyright once you create something original and then capture it in some type of fixed, tangible format such as your computer, pen and paper, a recording on a mobile app, whatever. It also should have the ability to be reproduced. By registering the work with The US Copyright Office, you create evidence that the song is yours!
  2. 2. The composition or what is typically known as the “song” copyright is usually owned by the author who can be an individual writer, a solo artist or a band. The song copyright comprises a fifty-fifty split in income between the songwriter and the publisher. If you write the song and have no formal agreement with a publishing company, then you as the songwriter own both the writer share and the publishing share of your song(s). You can receive royalties by licensing your songs to others for audio-visual purposes (film, videos, television), public performance (broadcast media, streaming, radio, public establishments), samples, recording (other music artists/bands). As the song copyright holder, you decide who has first dibs on a new song (known as “First Use Rights”). However, once a song is commercially released to the public, anyone has the right to record it, provided they obtain a compulsory license from you. The rate is regulated by law. The PRO’s that represent songwriters in the U.S. are BMI, ASCAP and SESAC. They DO NOT deal with sound recordings but rather the performance of a song.
  3. 3. The SOUND copyright registration is also known as THE SR (for SOUND RECORDING). The sound recording copyright is the actual recording itself. The SR copyright is separate from the PA. It can be an entire album or just one song, but it is important to understand that the SR owner only has rights to the “recording” of the song, and not the song itself. Record companies typically own the SR copyright which gives them the right to license the recordings.
  4. 4. If the user licensing a song wants the specific sound recording of that song, then a separate license must be issued by the sound recording owner. This is in addition to any song/composition license. If all writers (authors) are the same on a given album, you can safely file your copyright as an SR and not worry about filing FORM PA. This will fully protect your songs and you will be the sole owner(s) of both copyrights. However if there are different authors on a recorded album you should file both the appropriate PA and SR copyright forms to distinguish ownership. An SR copyright owner typically issues a “Master Use License” for those interested in using the actual recording of a song. The fee is negotiable. The PRO that caters specifically to sound recordings, is SoundExchange. ASCAP, BMI and SESAC only pay out based on the performance of a song and not the actual recording of it. If another party other than the artist owns the SR (such as a record label, manager or producer), then the artist has no control over it. An example would be a major label artist recording an album. The artist would own the songs on the album, but not the album (the recording) itself.