Under Section 102 of the Copyright Act, musical works, including any accompanying words, are eligible for copyright protection. Despite this seemingly straightforward statement, the application of copyright law to musical works can sometimes be complex and confusing. The rights of the owner of the copyright in a musical work are typically referred to as print rights, mechanical rights, synchronization rights and performance rights. Depending on the situation, these rights may be held or administered by the songwriter, the music publisher or a performing rights society.

Print Rights are the rights to print the music in sheet music, folio or other similar forms. Print rights include the right to print some or all of the lyrics of a song in a book or magazine article. Print rights are usually administered by the music publisher or its agent.

Mechanical Rights are the rights to record the music on records, tapes and compact disks, and to distribute those recordings to the public. Under the Copyright Act, once a recording of a song has been distributed to the public, any person may make and distribute another recording of the same song, provided that person pays the statutorily established mechanical royalty. In most cases, a person who wants to make a new recording of a previously recorded song will negotiate a royalty rate with the holder of the mechanical rights (usually the music publisher) rather than pay the statutory rate.

Synchronization Rights are the rights to use the music in synchronization with visual images. A producer must obtain a "synch" license in order to use the music in a movie, television show or television commercial. Synch rights are usually administered by an agent for the publisher.

Performance Rights are really two sets of rights: dramatic performance rights and nondramatic performance rights. Dramatic rights refer to the use of the music in such a way that it tells the story of a musical, ballet or other similar work. A performance of the musical Showboat is an example of the exercise of dramatic performance rights. Nondramatic rights refer to all other performances of a musical work, whether live or by recording, and whether performed at the same location as the listeners or transmitted to listeners at many different locations. For example, the live performance of a single song from Showboat at a nightclub or the playing of a recording of the song at a restaurant or on the radio would be an exercise of nondramatic rights. In most cases, nondramatic rights are administered by performing rights societies. The two major U.S. performing rights societies are BMI and ASCAP.