Third edition of USA copyright office compendium – what is a sound recording?

Sound recordings are “works that result from the fixation of a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds, but not including sounds accompanying a motion picture or other audiovisual work, regardless of the nature of the material objects, such as disks, tapes or other phonorecords, in which they are embodied.”

A series of musical, spoken, or other sounds requires a temporal succession of sounds rather than a single sound expressed horizontally or simultaneous sounds expressed vertically, such as in a chord.

A sound recording and the music, lyrics, words, or other underlying content embodied in that recording are separate works. The copyright in a sound recording covers the recording itself, but does not cover the music, lyrics, words, or other underlying content embodied in that recording (or vice versa).

There is a legal distinction between a sound recording and the soundtrack for a motion picture or other audiovisual work. The statutory definition for a sound recording specifically states that this category does not include the “sounds accompanying a motion picture or other audiovisual work.”

Thus, when an applicant intends to register the sounds in a motion picture or other audiovisual work, the applicant must state “sounds,” “soundtrack,” or “sounds accompanying a motion picture/audiovisual work,” rather than “sound recording.”

A sound recording may be submitted to the U.S. Copyright Office in an electronic format by uploading the work to the Office’s electronic registration system. Electronic formats include but are not limited to digital audio files (e.g., .wav, .mp3, .wma). A digital audio file that is uploaded to the Office’s server in support of an online application is a phonorecord for registration purposes.

A sound recording also may be submitted to the U.S. Copyright Office in a hard copy format, either by mail, by courier, or in person. Hard copy formats include but are not limited to:

  • Compact discs
  • Vinyl records
  • Tape formats
  • Flash drives

A sound recording is “fixed” in a tangible medium of expression when its embodiment in a phonorecord, “by or under the authority of the author, is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than transitory duration.”

To be “fixed,” a live performance must be recorded by or under the authority of the performer. If a live performance is recorded without the performer’s permission, the U.S. Copyright Office cannot register (draft) that recording.

Certain formats do not sufficiently fix a specific series of sounds. In such cases, the Office will not register a claim in sound recording. For example, standard midi files capture the underlying musical score, but they do not capture a specific series of sounds. While they contain instructions for producing sounds, any instrumentation may be applied, resulting in a file that contains different sounds each time it is played. For this reason, the Office does not consider standard midi files to be phonorecords and will not register a copyright claim in a sound recording contained in a standard midi file (although it may accept the claim as a musical work).