Years ago, I met with an intellectual property attorney to discuss trademark and copyright for a business I was starting.
As I sat back in one of his fancy leather chairs, the lawyer told me that you can’t copyright or trademark ideas, just specific expressions of those ideas.
Works like songs, books, and movies are creative expressions protected by copyright – but titles and short phrases are treated differently under the law.
So, can two different songs have the same name? The answer is yes! U.S. copyright law considers “names, titles, and short phrases” to possess an “insufficient amount of authorship or creativity.” That means song titles aren’t long enough to enjoy the protection of a copyright.
You often see songs with the same title, and that’s because song titles can’t be copyrighted. But there are still a handful of times when giving your song the same name as another song may get you into trouble, legally or otherwise!
Improve your songwriting by mastering piano.
A Song Name as a Trademark
U.S. copyright law deals with the expression of a creative work, while trademark law deals with intellectual property in commerce.
For example, if a software company calls their phone app “UltraSpeedy,” and an engine oil manufacturer also calls their product “UltraSpeedy,” they may both be able to have that same name trademarked. This is because consumers aren’t likely to be confused when the same name is applied to products or services in completely different industries.
As songwriters, we shouldn’t be too concerned about song titles being trademarked. In fact, I’d say that 99 percent of the time, if you think up a random word or phrase as a song title, you’re going to be in the clear for both copyright and trademark concerns.
But this isn’t always true! Below is one interesting example of a huge trademark dispute based around a song title: “Hotel California” by the Eagles.
The “Hotel California” Trademark Fight
“Hotel California” is an iconic song and album by classic rock band the Eagles. In fact, the song is so popular that it’s virtually synonymous with the band itself, and has become the basis for a lot of merchandise that the band has sold over the years.
This case had a reasonably amicable ending back in 2018 – the lawsuit was settled, the hotel got to continue using its name and service mark in the country of Mexico, and the Eagles got the chain to permanently withdraw its request for a trademark in the United States.
But the key point is, it’s not unheard of for a song title to become valuable enough to be worthy of a trademark, especially if the phrase starts getting used in official merchandise or as the name of a business! If you decide to name your new song “Hotel California,” it may or may not be strictly illegal, but once your version becomes popular enough to start making some real money, a certain band’s lawyers will probably have something to say about it…
Avoiding Trademark Infringement
If you seem to be implying that your song is officially sanctioned by or associated with another brand, you may find yourself in legal trouble. Even if you feel like fair use laws would apply, it’s better just to sidestep the possibility of a trademark infringement lawsuit by being as original as you can.
Other Considerations When Naming Your Song
The legality of naming different songs with the same title is one thing, but there are a few other factors to think about as well that could affect your songwriting success.
Marketing Your Song
When your song shares its title with a LOT of other songs, you have to consider the difficulty of ranking in search engines like Google and music streaming services like Spotify.
You might love the name “Crazy” for your song, but so did Willie Nelson, Gnarls Barkley, Aerosmith, and countless other popular artists. You’re still legally allowed to use the same song title, but you should know that your song “Crazy” is never going to show up above more established artists in the search results.
That’s why it’s usually better if your song has a memorable, unique title. The ideal song title length is typically between one and five words – and when you’re starting out, it’s often easier for your songs to be found if you write longer, highly original titles. Then, people will be able to find your song when they search for that hook you sang in the chorus.
Your Reputation as an Artist
When you write a song, you’re part of a community of songwriters, musicians, and performers. Just like in stand-up comedy, where it might not be technically illegal to “steal” other people’s jokes, you may be able to legally use someone else’s song title on your own song. But is it worth it?
Consider Adele’s song “Set Fire to the Rain.” This song has a recognizable title, and it’s popular all over the world.
So, if you tried to name your own song “Set Fire to the Rain,” it would be really obvious that you weren’t the first artist to use that title.
Even worse, it would be confusing for listeners who found your song, because they would either expect it to be the original by Adele or possibly your cover version of the original song. When they end up hearing something totally different, these potential fans will probably leave disappointed.
As an artist, reputation is everything, and something as simple as a song title can help or hurt yours.
There’s one more thing to consider when naming your songs: originality. True artists are successful when they develop a personality that stands out from the crowd. While it’s inevitable that some of your songs will have the same titles as other songs, if most of your song titles you come up with are copycats, how are you making your mark?
Often, with just a little more creative effort, you can take a song title that’s been done to death and turn it into something completely original. Expand the phrase with some power words, let your imagination run wild, and put in the time to craft a memorable song title that endures for years!
Can Two Different Songs Have the Same Name Wrap-Up
So, can two different songs have the same name? While you shouldn’t just ignore the potential legal issues in titling your songs, it’s rarely a problem in practice.
Don’t worry if you come up with a great song idea, do a search online, and find out that someone else has the same title! Song titles can’t be copyrighted, and chances are good that your song is in a different genre with a different audience anyway.
The craft of songwriting is hard enough, not to mention all this business stuff. But while the legal side of songwriting may be complicated, it’s well worth learning about if you want to make money with your music!
To find out more about the copyright law associated with song titles and other short phrases, check out this Circular 33 document from Copyright.gov.
Are you looking to write a new song? Coming up with a song name and premise is only ONE piece of the puzzle… You also have to put your words to music! Whether you’re a brand-new musician or you’ve been playing for years, Piano for All is true to its name – a course that can help anyone progress. Check it out!
Improve your songwriting by mastering piano.