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Copyrighting your songs

Copyrighting your songs by Lorna Read (who nicked the idea)

Many readers have written to us asking how they can stop unscrupulous bands, publishers and artists ripping-off their songs. We asked Lorna Read to make some enquiries...

Songwriters are, on the whole, a paranoid lot. It's a safe bet that Tolstoy didn't keep nearly such a close eye on the manuscript of 'War and Peace', nor Frederick Forsyth on 'Day of the Jackal', as Umberto L. Sproat of Battersea is jealously guarding the quavers, chords, intervals and lyrics of 'Mrs — Social Securi — T', his latest socio-political reggae creation.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think they had invented carbon paper, let alone photocopiers, in Tolstoy's day, unless the Reds were considerably further ahead than they've ever let on! Therefore it stands to reason that the feckless Leon only had one copy of his master work. But it was never stolen, plagiarised, or attributed to anybody else except him.

By the time Freddie F. took to the typewriter, both duplicating systems were in existence. That meant he could keep a copy of his manuscript for himself and send several others on the rounds of the publishers. In fact, he sent it to almost twenty before someone recognised the best-selling potential of his work. It had all those chances to go astray.

Books are many thousands of words long. If 'War and Peace' had been left by a vodka-befuddled Tolstoy on the Trans-Siberian Railway and someone else had found it and popped it off to a publisher claiming it as his own work, it would be relatively easy to put the claimant to the test. No-one could keep an attempt at someone else's writing style going for thousands upon thousands of words. They'd lose it, their own natural style would show through, no matter how good a writer they were.

By comparison, a song is very short, anything from a couple of minutes to, at most, the fifteen to twenty minutes of one side of an album — and few songs are that kind of length! Unlike poems, they are not dependent on their lyrics. And even if they were, when can you remember a poet last appearing before a judge, accusing another of 'alf-inching his elegy? Maybe this is not altogether surprising when you consider the financial rewards offered in poetry writing! There is far more money to be made out of writing a hit song than a hit sonnet — upwards of £10,000 if it gets into the Top Ten. So stealing a good song could be quite a shrewd business move.


But is there, as poor Umberto Sproat fears, an army of shadowy shysters out there, ready to tweak demo tapes out of letterboxes and hurtle them down to some back-street studio, where an army of faceless session men will alter the rhythm slightly, change the title, and, under the disguise of a one-off name, have an instant massive hit? The theft of songs hardly comes into the organised crime bracket... but the danger does exist. However, there is no doubt that many songwriters, particularly amateur ones who haven't yet had any of their songs published or performed, exaggerate the problem. When I was editor of Hit Songwriting & Recording magazine I would frequently receive letters along the lines of:

'I have written fifteen songs and would like to start sending them to publishers, but how can I make sure nobody pinches them?' Whether or not sending one's material to a publisher in the first instance is the right way to go about launching oneself as a songwriter, is the subject of another article entirely (Any more hints like that and... Ed.). But the questions I would have liked to ask my correspondents in return were firstly, are your songs down on tape or manuscript? and secondly, who do you imagine is going to steal them? A publisher would scarcely dream of doing such a thing. What would be the point? If he thinks your song is brilliant, he will want to make money out of it by doing a deal with you, hopefully the type which will keep you supplying him with a stream of hit material.

How about someone slightly less scrupulous, who just happens to wander into his office, sees your tape or manuscript lying around, takes it off home and tries it out, and thinks: 'Hmm... That band the Purple Pustules from Penge who I've just signed for management would make a good job of this. Of course, we'd all make a lot more money if they'd written it themselves. Hey, that's an idea. Old Fred Denmark-Street hasn't played it yet, the jiffy-bag hasn't been opened. No-one would ever know.'?


It's still a trifle unlikely, but there is an outside chance that it could happen. I have heard of one or two cases where people have sent material, particularly ideas and numbers for musicals, to producers or television companies, and aeons later, when they had resigned themselves to never hearing back from whoever they had sent it to, they suddenly become aware that a big production is planned that is uncannily their brainchild. Unfortunately, there is no copyright on an idea. You could write a whole concept album around the theme of the French Revolution, for instance (though I can't think who'd buy it), send the demo off on the rounds, and someone else could think, "Mon dieu, quelle super idee, what?" and write their own work about the French Revolution. And if theirs was in no way similar to yours in music, lyrics or treatment, there would be nothing you could do about it. To try and prove that theirs was based upon yours would be a very shadowy, difficult legal area. But proving that they have directly lifted one or more of your songs is quite easy. Anyone with a working pair of ears can tell if two tunes sound the same or not.

Which brings me to the third question I would ask of all paranoid songwriters: has anyone actually heard your songs? I know writers who have spent years scribbling songs in notebooks and humming tunes into cassette players. Then one day they switch on the radio and say, in aggrieved tones: "Hey, that's my tune. I wrote that in a coffee bar in Brighton in 1973. Hang on, I'll find the bit of paper I wrote it on..." There's no point rushing to a solicitor and trying to claim thousands of pounds in royalties from the alleged plagiarists if your songs have never left the shelter of your cupboard. Even if you strummed one of them in a folk club once, there's very little chance of a connection.

A musical octave consists of eight white notes and five black ones. Any normal Western melody is based on combinations of these notes contained within a span that the normal singing voice can manage, usually not more than three octaves. You can mess around with rhythms and chords, of course, but it stands to reason that, with the number of people all over the world who are currently composing songs, there are going to be considerable overlaps here and there. In fact, one frequently hears songs that remind one of something else. But there is a big legal gap between one song being reminiscent of another and being identical to it.


However, to return to the point of who is likely to steal your song; the answer is that deliberate song thieves are very rare creatures. The real culprits are coincidence and the very fallible human memory. Can you honestly cross your heart and swear that you can remember every song you heard as a child, or even every snatch of every number you've heard in the past year? Of course, you can't. Yet just as your memory occasionally surprises you by throwing up something you thought you'd forgotten (I don't remember eating that!), so it can reproduce snatches of melodies which sank into it years ago, just when you're sitting down to write. It has been suggested that this happened to George Harrison in the big court case over My Sweet Lord, where the judge ruled, rightly or wrongly, that his melody was cribbed from He's So Fine.

The legal battle over a song copyright concerns the Bee Gees' enormous hit, How Deep Is Your Love, which an obscure songwriter claims to have written first. This is being contested at the moment.

Obviously, as large sums of money can be at stake, a songwriter should take efforts to protect his or her work if he or she thinks there is any likelihood of it being pinched or plagiarised. What most writers don't realise is that under the copyright law of the United Kingdom (Copyright Act 1959), copyright automatically comes into existence as soon as an original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work has been created, provided it is written down or otherwise recorded in some material form and provided it has been created by someone deemed by the Act to be a 'qualified person', which means they must be (a) a British subject; (b) a British protected person or citizen of the Republic of Ireland; (c) a person domiciled or resident in the United Kingdom; or (d) a corporate body incorporated in the United Kingdom. Different countries have their own separate copyright laws. In America, for instance, you are obliged to register your work in order to establish copyright. So, in other words, the moment you have created the original song and put it down on tape, or written out the words and music, you hold the copyright on that work. However, as the nail-biting Umberto Sproat of Battersea fears, this is not enough. If it comes to the crunch and another songwriter claims to have written that song on November 11th, you need to be able to prove you wrote it on or before November 10th.


There are three recognised ways of doing this and all have their advantages and disadvantages.

The first is to deposit a copy of your song(s) with a responsible person such as a bank manager or solicitor, and obtain a signed and dated receipt. This method works okay so long as you are not prolific. Solicitors tend to have limited cupboard space, and bank managers may not like to be rooted out of their polished mahogany offices twice a week to sign for your latest offerings which will gradually mount up, as mine did, into an unwieldy bundle which can get temporarily mislaid only too easily (as mine did)! However, this is a reliable way of proving copyright if you only wish to lodge your best songs, the ones you feel have the greatest hit potential, rather than every single outpouring.

The second method, which I have personally found to be the best for me, is to save your songs up until you have a bundle of them down on paper, or enough to make it worthwhile putting them on cassette, then go to the post office, put them in a registered envelope, and get them sent to yourself by registered post. Keep the receipt, which is your proof of the date of posting and — MOST IMPORTANT — never open the envelope(s). If anyone were to suspect you of tampering with the envelope then a copyright case could be lost. As the only reason you are likely to tamper with it is because you can't remember what songs are inside, always keep a note of the contents. What I do is write down the titles, both on the receipt and the envelope, so that you can match them up later.


If you want to make doubly sure of (a) protecting your songs, and (b), not losing them in the depths of your untidy abode, you can save up your registered envelopes until you have a bundle, parcel them up, and then deposit a whole pile at one fell swoop with either your bank or your solicitor. (If you're truly paranoid, the 'listening bank' could take on a whole new, sinister meaning!)

The third method of protection open to you is to register a work at Stationers Hall, (Contact Details). However, as this costs £10 a time, it makes the other methods seem distinctly more attractive.

The Performing Rights Society ((Contact Details)) issue a list of books on copyright and the music industry, and your local library should stock a standard work on copyright by R,F. Whale.

There is no copyright on song titles, by the way. It so happens I wrote a song called Total Eclipse of the Heart back in 1972. It was much better than that other version. My tune went da-dee, dum dum da-da. It was a great hit with my auntie and cousin in St. Albans...

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Music UK - Copyright: Folly Publications


Music UK - May 1983



Feature by Lorna Read

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