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I used a melody from an old Eastern European folk song and my own lyrics to record myself singing and playing the guitar.

Do I copyright just the lyrics and just the performance or copyright the whole thing?

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Copyright is automatic - it starts to exist when you create a work of a type protected by law. Lyrics are such a work, and thus your lyrics are protected. Even the fact that the lyrics go with an existing (public domain) melody is protected. In addition, your recording is protected.

However, the melody is probably not copyrighted, and does not become copyrighted merely because you re-used it. (Probably, because you didn't indicate how old, so I assumed old enough that nobody remembers the origin)

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  • Under US copyright law, you're only required to register your copyright when you want to sue someone in US federal courts for infringement. Your copyright on the lyrics may be registered for a small fee and an online upload of the form and a copy of your work.
    – Upnorth
    Jan 22 '18 at 19:44
  • What if a work evolves as a result of being spread orally before anyone transcribes it onto a tangible medium? Many songs with a form like "Hush little baby, don't say a word" are amenable to the addition of an arbitrary number of verses, and it would be literally impossible to catalog all the variations that exist, or determine who added what lyrics when, especially since people who add verses may have no idea whether they might have heard them before.
    – supercat
    Feb 12 '21 at 23:22
  • @supercat: Well, the recording (performance) itself would still be copyrighted, of course. But lawsuits would be unlikely as the plaintiff would need evidence, and the defendant can easily sow doubt about the claimed origin.
    – MSalters
    Feb 13 '21 at 13:28

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