Songwriter? Know Your Rights

By Rodney Murphy, Director, A&R, SOCAN

The moment you create a song, you own it. It’s yours, and it’s your right to receive money when it’s played in public, under copyright. So what does “under copyright” mean, exactly?

Well, copyright is really a bundle of different rights. There are three main ones:

  • The right to produce a song, such as making a master recording, or printing sheet music.
  • The right to reproduce or make copies of the song, which includes
    • Mechanical rights, where the music is reproduced mechanically, such as pressing a CD, or reproducing it digitally; and
    • Synchronization rights, where the music is synchronized with an image, such as music in films, videos, and multimedia productions.
  • Performing rights, which are the rights to perform a song in public – whether it’s a song played by a band in a live concert, played on a recording in a business venue, or played to the public on the radio, in a television broadcast, or via YouTube, Spotify or Apple Music.

Simply put, the performing right is the right to perform a song in public. If you wrote the song, then you own the performing rights to it, and only you have the right to perform it in public, or to grant permission to somebody else to perform it in public. If somebody buys your album or downloads your song, they only have the right to listen to it in private. If any of the songs on that album, or that downloaded song, are played in public, the performance needs to be licensed by SOCAN so that you can be paid the performing rights royalties that you earned for writing it.

If you’re a SOCAN member, SOCAN administers these performing rights on your behalf, in return for managing your royalties. SOCAN navigates through the difficult process of tracking your music, collecting your royalties, protecting your rights, and allowing you to concentrate more on what you love: making music.

We don’t administer your moral rights (your right to say how your song is used) or neighbouring rights (of the musicians who played on the recording of the song). Most of these rights are most often handled by a lawyer, manager, or other business representative, though neighbouring rights are handled by an organization called Re:Sound.

If you live in Canada, then as soon as you write a song, it’s automatically copyrighted. But it’s usually a good idea to have proof that establishes that you are indeed the owner of the song, and the date that it was written. Recording the song, writing out the lyrics, or creating sheet music for it are all helpful. If you want to have even clearer evidence of your ownership, just in case someone might illegally use your song, you can register the song with the Canadian copyright office, at

Songwriters will sometimes assign their copyright to a music publisher in exchange for the publisher paying them royalties, or an advance against future royalties, or both, under the terms of an agreement. Often, publishers agree with you to try to use your songs in various commercial ways, like placing them in movies, getting recording artists to cover them, and so on. The terms of the contract determine what rights the songwriter keeps in the songs he or she has written, though in Canada no publisher is allowed to take more than 50% of the song.

To protect your copyright online, it’s a good idea to place the copyright notice (i.e., © Your Name 2018 [year of first publication]) on all of your songs, so that potential users know that you’re the one who wrote them, and you’re the one who holds the rights to them. Other than that, it’s up to you to watch for any proof that someone is using one of your songs without your permission, which is called infringing on your rights. If that happens, you can request that the infringer stop using your song, or even take legal action. As yet, there’s no policing mechanism over protecting copyright online

Canada is one of the countries that has signed the Berne and Universal Copyright Conventions. These are international treaties, signed by many countries, which ensure that songwriters – who own the copyright in their songs – are granted similar rights in all the countries that have signed the agreements. As a songwriter, your performing rights are also protected internationally by SOCAN through agreements with affiliated performing rights organizations in other countries throughout the world – such as ASCAP and BMI in the U.S., PRS for Music in the U.K., and so on.

Knowing your rights as a songwriter is essential to building your career. SOCAN makes the process of monitoring, collecting and paying you for your songs perfectly easy and simple. And the best news? Joining SOCAN is free.