Under copyright law, as soon as one of your original song ideas is recorded on a handheld recorder or the lyrics to one of your compositions is written on a sheet of paper, a copyright is formed. A copyright grants you the exclusive first right to reproduce, distribute, perform, and sell your compositions to the public.
But what does copyright law say about your rights when an original idea is formed between two or more people? A few principles regarding joint works must be understood by the authors, and the most important principle has to do with ownership.
Division Of Ownership Under Copyright Law
There’s a presumption under copyright law that the authors of a joint work are automatically considered equal contributors. This simply means that if a band writes a song, each writer automatically owns an equal share, no matter how big or small their musical or lyrical contribution.
A “lyrical” contribution refers to the words written as part of a musical composition. Determining a “musical” contribution can be a lot more complicated. According to Neil Gillis, Vice President of A&R and Advertising at Warner/Chappell Music, a musical contribution includes the melody, as well as any pre-existing riff or groove that becomes an integral part of the song.
Take the drum part to the song “Wipe Out” for example, or the bass riff to the song “Come Together.” Would these songs be the same if either part was excluded? Certainly not. Nevertheless, Gillis warns that he would never walk out of a writing session without first being clear among all the writers what percentage of each composition he owned. A simple written agreement will suffice. It’s not even a bad idea to record writing sessions on a small recorder, and to keep copies of original lyric sheets in case a dispute between writers ever materializes.
Exceptions To Copyright Law Per Written Agreement
Keeping in mind what copyright law says, if the percentage split in a composition is intended to in any way to be other than equal, there needs to be a written agreement setting forth what that split really is. For instance, if the members of your band agree that the bass player’s contribution in a song should only entitle him to a ten percent share, this must be put in writing.
You may be wondering whether any musician would carelessly agree to a smaller percentage share than he or she actually deserves. It’s not that uncommon! In fact, I know several musicians who, throughout the course of performing with one extremely successful rock singer, signed away 100 percent of their song shares in return for a small sum of money. Not realizing the potential value of their shares over the long term, the guys felt that it was what they needed to do at the time to keep their positions in the band. Needless to say, they’re all kicking themselves now.
The “All For One, One For All” Philosophy
With all this talk of who’s entitled to what, you might ask what happened to the “all for one, one for all” philosophy that most young bands and writers swear to. After all, if a group of writers stuff themselves into a practice room to spend hours of their valuable time experimenting with song ideas and recording demos, is it really fair that the harmonica player gets zero interest in a song just because he wasn’t feeling as lyrically or melodically creative as the others that day? And what happens when all the writers make relevant suggestions and have to determine whose chorus idea gets used? Can this potentially turn the writing process into a competitive game of who’s getting credit rather than focusing on writing the best song possible? It can be a very real problem. Consequently, many bands have an initial agreement stating that all of its members will receive an equal split in the songs regardless of who comes up with what.
The “all for one, one for all philosophy” makes perfect sense at first, and works for many years of a relationship. However, once a group becomes successful and everyone in the industry begins telling the vocalist or guitarist that he or she is the real star and genius of the band, writing credits and percentages can quickly become a topic of further consideration.
For example, guitarist Stone Gossard and vocalist Eddie Vedder wrote most of Pearl Jam’s songs, yet the band originally split the percentages in its compositions equally: each of the five members received 20 percent. However, as they became more successful and vocalist Eddie Vedder was recognized as “the star,” essentially becoming the only irreplaceable member, the band wanted to keep him happy. They allotted 36 percent of each song to Vedder, and 16 percent went to each of the other four members of the band. In another, more drastic, example, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin started holing themselves up in a cottage in Scotland called Braun-yur to demo complete song ideas for Zeppelin III. In other words, this is where the other members of the group began to get cut out of the songwriting process.
Surely no one wants to lose out on their profitable piece of the pie, but the reality is there’s usually one or two key writers in a group who are the principle creators, and it takes a great amount of maturity on the part of the other members to somehow recognize and deal with it. It’s that simple! So it’s always best to get the sticky stuff out of the way before getting on to the business of writing – it can save potential hard feelings and your share of the credits when the time comes to collect your earnings.
A renown drummer, teacher, consultant, and Disc Makers contributor, Bobby Borg is the author of Music Marketing For The DIY Musician: Creating and Executing a Plan of Attack On A Limited Budget (September 2014, Hal Leonard). The book is available on the Hal Leonard website, Amazon.com, or at BobbyBorg.com.