According to the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright is created when a composition is “fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” In other words, as soon as you write down lyrics or record a riff on a CD or download it onto your computer, copyright is established. As a matter of course, you should always include of notification of copyright on your work. The proper form is the word “copyright” or the symbol (c), the year composed and your name.
You should also register your work with the United States Copyright Office before making the composition public, whether through performance or by posting it online. Even though it is not legally required, taking the time to register your song can make it much easier to prove infringement if anyone uses your song without the proper licenses or without paying the required royalties.
Being the copyright holder means you own the following rights: to perform the song in public, to copy the song, to sell copies of the song and to create derivative works from the song. More to the point, the copyright allows you to make money from your song by licensing those rights to others.
Most songwriters give up a percentage of copyright ownership to a music publisher. The publisher does all the leg work including issuing licenses, tracking sales and collecting the money earned. How much of a percentage you give a publisher depends on the publisher. But beginners should expect an established publisher to want at least half. Some publishers will give the songwriter a cash advance against future sales.
Among the rights that generated income are mechanical rights and performance rights. Mechanical rights permit a song to be recorded on CD’s, copied and sold to the public. (As of 2008, songwriter receive a 9.1 cent royalty fee from labels per record sold.) Performance rights permit performers to sing the song publicly. Those royalties are paid by ASCAP or BMI.
But there are exceptions to copyright. Songwriters cannot pick and choose who gets to record their songs. As soon as you grant one person the right to record your work, a compulsory license is automatically granted to anyone else who also wants to record the song. That is, as long as they pay for the privilege!