Tin pan alley possesses a standard bugaboo for all new songwriters. This is the always-current rumor that publishers, professional songwriters, bandleaders - in fact, anyone and everyone in the music business - is intent upon stealing the ideas of new songwriters. Many new writers are hesitant about sending songs to publishers for this very reason. They are positive that if they allow the song out of their hands before the publishing contract is signed, they will find that the publisher has "copied" the number and stolen their idea. This may seem far-fetched, but it does happen.
The publisher takes every possible precaution before accepting a song for publication to insure that the song is not an infringement upon some other published number. He is usually able to spot an obvious infringement but if it should slip by his notice he knows that it will undoubtedly be picked up by the arrangers on his staff. Sometimes, despite all precautions, the infringement will pass unnoticed and the publisher is faced with an infringement suit. But such instances are extremely rare, particularly when one considers the tremendous number of songs of all types that are published every year.
Both the songwriter and the publisher are protected by law against infringement. Since the main charge in an infringement suit is that one song has been stolen from another, it is plain that both parties must be able to prove when the respective songs were written. The party that can show that his song was created before the other stands a good chance of winning the case. This date of creation can be established by several methods:
1. Take the manuscript before a notary public and have him witness your signature and affix the notary seal to the sheet of music.
2. Put the manuscript in an envelope. Seal the envelope and then mail it to yourself. The post mark will establish the date.
3. Keep the manuscript in the sealed envelope until it should be needed in an infringement case. The envelope should be opened only in court.
4. Secure some reliable and unprejudiced witnesses who can attest to hearing or seeing the number on a particular date.
5. Secure a U. S. Copyright registration.
The last method is, by far, the most satisfactory. Copyright registration simply means that the song has been officially registered as of a certain date, therefore becoming a matter of record.
Although the songwriter is entitled to exclusive rights to his composition, under common law, he must prove, beyond a question of doubt that he had created the song on a particular date. This might be established by the methods suggested above, but these methods are, to a great extent, makeshift, and do not provide definite proof offered by an official copyright card.
Furthermore, if a case is being tried on the basis of common law copyright, minimum damages are not established and must be determined by the court. For these reasons alone, it is preferable to secure an official copyright for the song.
The procedure is quite simple. The songwriter merely has to write to the Registrar of Copyrights, Washington, D. C, and ask for some application cards for unpublished musical compositions. These cards are sent free of charge. One card is required for each song to be copyrighted. The songwriter fills out the card which provides space for the names of lyric writers and composer, residence, name of song, date, etc.
The filled-in card is then returned to "Washington together with a copy of the manuscript and the required fee of one dollar." Within a short time, the songwriter receives an official registration card attesting that the song had been duly registered as of a certain date. This card should be placed away carefully by the songwriter for it provides concrete evidence that his song had been witnessed on a particular date.
If the above procedures are followed, you precious song should be protected from any unscrupulous person intent on stealing your hard work!
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