In my practice as an attorney I've have had the pleasure to work with recording artists, songwriters, labels, studios, producers, and musicians. Some had misconceptions about how copyright of music really relates to income streams and asset protection.
Perhaps part of the problem is the internet where there are conflicting "facts".
But the internet is also a great tool. You can copyright your music quickly at a comparatively low price with on-line copyright services. As discussed elsewhere on this site, you have a copyright in your work at the time of creation. However, the bundle of rights you have in your own work can not be secured, enforced and fully monetized until you REGISTER your copyright with the U.S. Copyright office.
Beware "Private" Registrations
Be careful. Not all copyright services are created equal.
A number of on-line companies offer to store your music in their private "vaults", promising to send you some sort of certificate to confirm you're the writer of the music. These services DO NOT provide official Registration and therefore do not "copyright your music".
Copyright law in the United States rewards Registration through the proper governmental agency which then becomes the basis to acquire certain royalties and damage awards for infringement. Private "vaulting" does not link your music copyright to these advantageous legal levers.
You may wish to avoid copyright services which store your music in a private database. Better practice is to complet all U.S. Copyright Office forms and comply with official Library of Congress deposit requirements. That puts teeth in your ownership interests known as a "copyright".
Worse Than Useless
I've seen websites that promise to send you certified written communications you can use in Court if anyone rips off your music. These copyright services may create a false sense of security. A cheapo private registration may mislead songwriters and musicians to think they have the same level of protection as an official Registration. They don't.
This is all most unfortunate because it's pretty cheap to do it right.
I've seen this advice:
Use "private" registration in vaults or databases and then do an official Registration with the Copyright Office "only when you need it".
As you learn how Registration tiggers the benefits of your copyright, the "only when you need it" approach is pretty terrible advice.
Quick Review of Benefits When You Register Music Copyright?
First, if someone rips off your music you can't file an infringement action unless you've Registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Period. Rights without a right of action have less value.
Here's the language from Title 17 Section 411 of the Copyright Act: (You don't need a lawyer to interpet this) :
"..no action for infringement of the copyright in any United States work shall be instituted until...registration of the copyright claim has been made in accordance with this title."
So, we favor copyright services that register your work "in accordance with this title." We can recommend a service which does exactly that.
In any event, you do NOT want to begin the Registration process while someone is raking up profits on your work. The music business cycle is fast.
Official registration with the Copyright Office becomes mandatory three months after your music is published. Not that the copyright police are coming, but there are actually fines for failure to register published music at Title 17, Section 407 of the United States Copyright Act.
"Publication" is just about any distribution of the song to the public for sale, including 3 song demoes you might peddle at shows. It is very possible your work is published. For more information on the subject of publication, see here...
If your work is still unpublished you can Register it and there is no need for a re-registration after publication occurs when you begin selling the music.
Third, you can collect so called Statutory Damages if you Register.
Here's where that cheapo "private" registration service can cost you big. With Statutory Damages you can forget about proving what your actual losses are when someone infringes on your copyright (steals your music.) Actual damages can be very hard to prove, and may be small for emerging recording artists and songwriters.
Statutory Damages and beautiful and wonderful rights. The Court will assume losses and award you money, and it can be can be big money: up to $30,000.00 for each act of infringement. Under some circumstances, the Statuotry Damages can be as high as $150,000.00 per act of theft of your work.
If the infringement occurs before your music is considered "published" and you haven't registered properly, you're out of luck - no statutory damages can be awarded.
If the work is published and the theft occurs before you register or within three months after the work could be defined as "published", you're out of luck - no statuory damages.
"Wait until you need it" seems like poor advice. If you're going use any copyright services, only use one that will secure your rights properly through a United States Government Registration. You can find such a service through the link below: