Are Song Arrangements Copyrighted?

By Jennifer Kiesewetter, J.D.

Are Song Arrangements Copyrighted?

By Jennifer Kiesewetter, J.D.

You're ready to record and release your song. But, before you do, you may want to protect it. U.S. copyright laws protect a song's arrangements as original works of authorship. This intellectual property protection extends to the underlying musical composition of your song, including chords, musical notes, harmonies, rhythm, and lyrics.

However, the song arrangement copyright does not extend to the song's recording. The author, or the record company, needs to establish rights to the recording separately.

Three musicians sitting on a couch looking at sheet music

Let's delve into the protection requirements for your song's arrangements so you can protect your artistic creation.

General Requirements for Copyright

For song arrangements to be protected under U.S copyright laws, they must satisfy the following elements, as set forth in 17 U.S.C. §102:

  • The arrangement must be an original work.
  • It must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression, such as on sheet music or a digital recording.
  • It must be a musical work, including any accompanying words.
  • It must not be an idea or concept.

To be an original song arrangement or composition, the work must be independently created and of the author's own efforts. Note that musical styles, such as jazz or rock, are not protected under this umbrella.

Derivative Musical Works

Musical works also include new versions of earlier compositions or arrangements to which the author has added new copyrightable authorship, called derivative works. For derivative works, the "amending" author would need to seek a license or assignment from the copyright holder of the original musical work.

If granted, then the amending author may create the derivative musical work without worrying about an infringement case. However, if the amending author proceeds without a license or assignment, except in certain situations, the amending author could be infringing upon the rights of the original holder.

Rights Associated with Protection

Once you secure a copyright for your underlying song arrangement or composition, you'll want to understand what the true meaning of this is.

This protection gives the owner of the musical composition the exclusive right to perform or display the work publicly, sell or distribute copies, make copies of the work, and create or allow derivative works of the song's arrangement. Copyright protection also allows the owner to grant permission or license to allow others to do the same.

If a person does not receive express permission from the holder to use, reproduce, sell, or perform the song's composition or arrangement and uses the work anyway, then the holder can sue that person for infringement.

Musical Composition vs. Sound Recording

A musical work has two copyrightable elements: the underlying musical composition, of which the song's arrangements are a part, and the sound recording of that composition. The musical composition is typically filed as a performing arts piece of work. The sound recording of the musical composition is the fixation of the musical composition on an LP, CD, or digital format. Thus, two copyrights must be issued—one for the underlying musical composition and one for the sound recording.

Writing and composing songs is a great expression of creativity. Make sure you understand the difference between what parts of a song can be copyrighted and what parts cannot so that you're protected from someone stealing your hard work.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.