A song is two works in one

What is a song? In the music industry, it is more than simply putting pen to paper and fingers to an instrument. A song is both the musical composition (music and any accompanying words) and the sound recording. The musical composition may include the phonorecord of your song (disc or cassette), but it does not include the recorded performance.

Legally, that definition matters. There are different copyright protections and licenses for each work, and having a copyright in one does not give you ownership of the other.

Registering your copyrights

The moment you create a composition and capture it in a tangible form — such as putting pen to paper — you own the copyright in it. You do not need to register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, but it may be a good idea to do so to ensure your rights are protected (learn more here).

You can complete a single application for your musical composition and sound recording as long as the authors/owners are exactly the same for both. You will need to complete an application, pay a filing fee and deposit copies of your works with the U.S. Copyright Office.

If the owners of the composition and recording are different, you will need to create separate applications. For example, a record label may have the right to record the song, but may not have ownership in the composition itself. The artist may own the song, but not have ownership over the recording.

If you are applying for an official copyright for your musical composition, you will need to deposit either two complete copies of your composition (one, if unpublished) or a phonorecord. A sound recording requires you to deposit two complete phonorecords.


Because musical compositions and sound recordings are two different things by law, they require separate licenses. If a person or company wishes to use your work, they must acquire a license to make, distribute or perform your musical composition and make or distribute copies of, or perform, the sound recording. The only difference is terrestrial, analogue radio, which is currently exempt from acquiring sound recording licenses.


Whether you are a songwriter or you wish to obtain license to perform an artist’s work, the legal issues involved can be confusing. An entertainment lawyer can help you work through the details and ensure your rights are protected.

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