Writing Songs With Others (by David McLaughlin) and other links to helpful web Articles,Resourceson songwriting. Song Structure & Dynamics (Flip Grater -
Using Melody & Harmony (Flip Grater -
Writing Songs In A Group Situation (Flip Grater -
Songwriting Critique (Jason Blume) Writing Songs With Others
By David Mclaughlin - McLaughlin Law
7th May 2007 In the last issue of our Music Law Newsletter we looked at some of the basic principles of copyright as it relates to music. We discussed the general rule that if you are the creator of a copyrightable work (such as the music or lyrics that comprise a song) then with a couple of exceptions you will be regarded as the owner of the copyright in that work. As we also discussed copyright ownership is so important as it is the copyright owner who gets to decide what can and can’t be done with a copyrighted work and it is the copyright owner who will be paid for granting any rights to other people to use their work. Bands
So what happens when you write songs in a band? Who owns what and how is this decided? Under copyright law the answer is pretty simple the person who creates the copyright work in question owns it. If there is more than one person who helped create the work then the copyright work becomes what is known as a work of joint authorship ‘a group effort’ if you like and it is owned in equal parts by the parties who helped create it. This situation can be varied by contract meaning that there is nothing to stop all the parties who contributed to the creation of a copyright work from agreeing what percentage of that work they were responsible for creating. Two Copyrights
I would also note that when I refer to a song I’m actually talking about something comprising two copyrights one being the lyrics to the song and the other being the music. It is in fact possible to have a song where one party retains the copyright in the music and the other party retains the copyright in the lyrics. For instance although Elton John writes all the music to his songs he has had a long lasting partnership with Bernie Taupin who writes all the lyrics. This is why if you ever see song credits to Elton John’s songs you will see it written “Music by Elton John Lyrics by Bernie Taupin”. For the purposes of this column when I refer to a song I’ll be considering the situation where the parties involved are not looking to distinguish between lyrics and music comprising a song but rather are interested in determining rights in respect of the song as a whole. Agreement
Although the law is fairly clear it is when you add in the ‘human element’ that things start to get complicated. To sit down and decide how each person’s contribution will be valued in terms of a percentage ownership of the final song is not something that many people find easy to do. Band situations in many cases can involve quite tense personal relationships and as few people enjoy confrontation in any form many people find it is often easier to let resolving who owns what to fall by the wayside. Big mistake! Fights over song ownerships are probably one of the most litigated areas in the music industry. Also although it is easy to not be too concerned about who owns what when you are just starting out it is amazing how interested people can suddenly become when there is money involved. Standard Formula
One way to make the issue of who owns what easier to deal with is to come to an agreement between your band or those people you write with as to a standard ongoing basis on which you will apportion song ownership. This has worked very well for song writing partnerships such as U2. The other interesting thing about the arrangement U2 have is that they have decided that no matter what each of them contribute they will all be credited with an equal share of the finished song. This can be a good way to help hold a song writing partnership or a band together even if everyone does not always contribute in exactly the same proportion. Variation
However this does not work in every case and sometimes it is clear that some people within a band bring a lot more to the song writing process than others and want to be recognised for such. Also sometimes the actual amount of this contribution varies from song to song. In situations such as this you may decide that despite the uncomfortable issues involved the fairest way is to actually deal with things on a song by song basis. 50/50
So is there really an industry standard way of determining exactly how to apportion song ownership when you write in a band or with other people? Unfortunately not. One of the old rules of thumb used to be 50% music and 50% lyrics however this still doesn’t solve the problem of what happens when you have more than one person writing the music or the lyrics. The way things have evolved in recent times there is no hard and fast rule but the most important thing is to make sure that any songwriting split is fair to all parties concerned and such a split is also clearly acknowledged and understood by all parties concerned. APRA
Just to make sure there is no disagreement later as to what was agreed it certainly doesn’t hurt to put down in writing the agreement you come to. One way of doing this is by registering your song with the Australasian Performing Rights Association (APRA) and listing the applicable percentage that each person is entitled to. Questions?
In the mean time if you have any queries or questions in respect of the above please don’t hesitate to contact me at or on 021 630 201 or 09 363 2738. Pass it on
Know someone who you think may be interested in the information in this newsletter? Feel free to pass it on to them! And if someone has sent you on this Newsletter we invite you to register yourself to get copies of our upcoming newsletters sent direct to your inbox. Disclaimer: This article is intended to provide a general outline of the law on the subject matter. Further professional advice should be sought before any action is taken in relation to the matters described in the article. This article written by David McLaughlin of McLaughlin Law recently appeared in New Zealand Musician Magazine and has been reproduced with the kind permission of New Zealand Musician Magazine.