Songwriting Part 22 - Protecting Your Next Platinum Single

by SaskMusic

July 31, 2009 in Songwriting & Copyright

Do you remember the Santana/Rob Thomas radio hit "Smooth"? It won a truckload of awards, and the entire known universe (okay, just America, but it's easy to get confused about the difference) was buzzing about how Thomas (of Matchbox Twenty fame) had really proven himself as a songwriter in this collaboration with the legendary PRS wielding Latin-chopmaster.

They played king-of-the-castle on the Billboard charts for twelve impossible weeks. Women swooned at Rob Thomas' boyish charm. Men swooned at the sight of Thomas' scantily clad wife in the accompanying music video. Teenage boys everywhere praised the almighty Carlos for finally writing a guitar hook that was easy to learn, yet impressed the girls. Once the radio saturation level had finally reached its peak, the given response to any question became a beleaguered "because you're so smooth." And in a final incidence of swooning, Arista Record Exec's reviewed their profit reports.

Supernatural, the Santana album Smooth was taken from, swept the Grammy Awards, and even netted Rob Thomas a Grammy for writing the song. What was rarely mentioned was the fact that Rob refined the final draft from an original song written by a man named Itaal Shur, and though Mr. Shur technically shared in the award, he was left out of the media spotlight surrounding Thomas and their hit song.1 (Spin)

Did he get paid? Yes. Were any laws broken? No, not that I can find. But the question remains, was Mr. Shur prepared for the cutthroat world of the publishing business when he first sat in his basement and penned this mega-hit song?

This business is one that hurts you if you don't keep your head up and your eyes open. Here are some things that every Canadian writer should know:

1. Copyright is the right to copy and use.

It sounds simple, and it is. Owning a copyright gives you the right to reproduce a work, to perform it, and to prevent others from doing either of these without your expressed permission2. It also prevents others from modifying your work and claiming a writer's credit…a right which Mr. Shur must have waived.

2. Canadian Copyright Law is automatic.

There is no need to register a work, mark it with a ©, or (heaven forbid) pay a snake-oil salesman to do it for you. It's very simple; you create a work, establish a tangible copy (i.e. tape recording, CD, or lead sheet) and it is protected under Intellectual Property Law…at least that's the theory.

3. Here's the rub: According to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) policing (i.e. discovering violations) is up to the copyright holder. So, you are responsible to track down the "bad guys" if your rights are infringed upon.

4. Extra Protection is Always a Good Idea

The ability to prove your copyright is central to making our remarkable automatic copyright law work in your favour. Here are a few options to increase your level of security:

a. Register your copyright with CIPO

I know. I just finished telling you that it's not necessary to register a work, but it can be a useful tool in supporting your claim in a copyright dispute.

The problem lies in the fact that CIPO doesn't verify your right to make the application, i.e. that you actually wrote the song you are submitting (making it subject to possible dispute), and they still won't police it. They will, however, be happy to take $65 in fees for every song you register, basically rendering this option impractical for all but the most successful or least prolific among us.

To sum up, you're paying a lot for spotty protection at best. The efficiency of the federal government is staggering but consistent. If you're still interested, go to and click on "copyright".

b. Join the Songwriters Association of Canada3 (SAC)

This is another option that involves a series of fees, but instead of punishing the fertile mind, like CIPO, the more songs you register with SAC, the cheaper it gets per song. The level of protection you receive is approximately on par with CIPO as far as I can tell. Here's how it works:

First, you need to become a member, because their "song depository" service is only open to insiders. This is simple, and costs you $60 + GST for one year; $100 + GST for two years.

Second, a registration fee of $5 applies for each song, as well an administration fee of $15 for each form you submit (you can register up to 12 songs per form). Mail in your audio copies; the paperwork and fees; and you're done.

So let's say we're registering twelve tunes, and buying a single year of membership…and with a little math and paperwork behind us we've spent a mere $135 + GST. That's $11.25 a song before taxes. Hmmm. I'm no genius, but that seems like a lot less than $65 a song.

Again, this is not a foolproof protection method. It merely establishes a date upon which the song was in your possession. In other words, it is one form of valid evidence on your behalf in support of your potential copyright claim.

However, there are other benefits to membership in the Songwriters Association of Canada other than this service; the organization operates numerous other programs. It's worth checking out at:

c. The Mail Option

It's taken me 24 years, but I finally found a good use for Canada Post…I'm kidding of course…I still haven't.

Seriously though, enclose signed and dated copies of your work in an envelope and mail them by registered mail to yourself. File them away unopened in case of a copyright dispute.

The postmark is legal proof of the date upon which your envelope was posted. This is NOT proof of copyright!!! It is useful, however, in establishing a copy of your work that predates any proof held by your opponent in a legal proceeding.

Oh yeah, did I mention that this doesn't cost $65 a song?

d. Establish your copyright with witnesses

Sworn testimony was still admissible in court the last time I checked, so play each song for some friends when you finish them. They will be able to testify as to your authorship should the need arise.

Again, this method is not foolproof, but it is free!…that is, unless you need to bribe your friends to listen to your tunes. Let's hope not.

e. That little symbol

The copyright symbol, as mentioned above, is not necessary in order to protect your music. It is useful in reminding would-be pirates that your music is indeed protected by intellectual property law. Let me say that again, the symbol does not protect you, but it is a visual reminder that copyright violation is a criminal offence.

It's not much of a deterrent, but for what it's worth, it might save you the headache of dealing with a petty song-thief…and the only cost is a keystroke or the flick of a pen.

The main thing I'm getting at is that there is no single fully effective method of protecting your music. Your best bet is to use the aforementioned tools in combination to provide you with multiple evidentiary options in case of a copyright dispute.

To steal a line from the S.A.C., "Copyright can only be established in a court of law." However unlikely copyright disputes are (and they are very unlikely), it is our duty to protect the songs we love.

Keep writing! May each tune be better than the last.
1 Spin Magazine Article "An American Band" July 2000 Issue. Written by Gavin Edwards
2 Canadian Intellectual Property Office website
3 Songwriters Association of Canada website

By Benjamin Reynolds for SaskMusic. Originally published May 2003.

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