Copyright 101: You wrote a song, who owns it?

Believe it or not, this is a more difficult question than you might think.  By way of example, let’s say you wrote a complete song in your room, including all chord progressions and melody lines.  You play the song to your significant other to see what they think.  They really like the song , but suggest to change the melody a little bit here and there, emphasizing different words and going an octave higher at this one part.  You then take the song to your band, where the drummer comes up with this great beat that takes the song in a different direction, and the bass player adds a little bridge after the second chorus.  You next go to a recording studio, where the producer adds some keyboards and one of your friends, a lead singer of another band, comes up with nice harmonization background vocal. Who can claim ownership to that complete song you wrote in your room? The correct answer is everyone.

This concept of ownership often times becomes lost in the sea of artistic creation. However, you as a song writer need to be aware of this and protect yourself so you do not end up giving away material you have substantially created.  There are two very simple agreements you need to think about. The first is a work for hire agreement, and the second is a co-songwriter’s agreement.  As to your significant other, producer, and the lead singer of the other band, you will want each of them to sign the first of these agreements, a work for hire agreement.  This agreement basically says, “I have employed you to work on this song, and anything you create as part of that employment belongs to me.” The agreement can have an exchange of value, i.e. money, but could also be a favor from the other person.  The important thing is everyone who works on the song with you, even as simple as playing it for your significant other and changing a thing here or there, you must get the parties involved to sign one of these work for hire agreements. You don’t want to end up like Lady GaGa or some other superstar, where all your ex-boyfriends sue you trying to get your hard earned money.

As to your band mates, the drummer and bass player, things get a little more interesting.  They too, could both sign a work for hire agreement and you could be done with it, but at the same time they have contributed a bit more to the song than the producer and background vocalist  (and you probably aren’t paying them) so they probably will not want to enter into that agreement.  The smart decision is to enter into a co-songwriter’s agreement with them, which very simply specifies, “I own X%, you own X%, he owns X%.” There is no industry standard percentage of how much an original drum beat or guitar solo is worth to a song, but a common way a band deals with this is to assume 50% of the song is the melody and lyrics and 50% of the song is the underlying musical composition.  From there, the co-authors decide who contributed what and come up with a fair percentage where everyone is happy.  Some artists do not follow this method however.  Some bands feel that every member of their band should receive equal songwriting credit for the songs they create.  They feel that no matter who contributed what, the band is best served by everyone receiving equal shares and not having the lead songwriter dominant the ownership of the music.  This is the exception to the rule however, as most bands follow a percentage of contribution model, but it is important to think about when deciding what makes best sense for YOU when writing musical compositions.

Your Songwriter’s Agreement is one of your greatest studio tools.  Keep one in blank with you at all times or at least in any writing session.  Don’t worry if a new song doesn’t have a permanent title, just call it something.  You can call it something a simple as “Monday October 17, 2011 Blues Jam.”   Make it a rule, nobody leaves the studio until the ink is on the paper.  Memories fade and people’s ideas of the value of their contributions will always be different later (especially when money is involved.)   A good music lawyer can draft a simple one for you in blank and you can use it over and over again.  So get a good lawyer and a good co-songwriters agreement and you will be a happy songwriter!

Bradley Legal Group, P.A. are Intellectual Property lawyers, Entertainment lawyers and Music lawyers servicing clients in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, West Palm Beach, Orlando, and Nashville. We also affiliate with entertainment lawyers licensed in New York and Washington, D.C. © 2011 Bradley Legal Group, P.A.