The concept of songwriting has evolved. From communal folk songs that evolved over millennia in the public domain to the sampling of other artists’ recordings, ownership has gone from irrelevant to essential revenue streams for the songwriter or the company that owns the song. It also gets more complicated if ownership percentages are determined when there was more than one songwriter.
Tips on protecting your songs
Songwriters in a band may have an agreement on song ownership, but there are plenty of professional freelancers out there who work on songs in Nashville, New York, or even online to help finish it or make it a hit. Working out the legal and business details before the song is heard by the public may feel like putting the cart before the horse. But establishing rules and expectations for the collaboration could help to avoid legal disputes later.
Some helpful tips to professionals (or those who wish to be) include:
- Agree on credits ahead of time: Perhaps a guitarist just came in to jam and a new song emerged. If this is the case, there could be a payment made up front or you could promise a songwriting credit or guarantee a part of the copyright interest. And it is always helpful to memorialize any agreement in writing at the time it is made.
- Splitting the copyright: Lyrics, melody, song structure, hooks, choruses, and rhythms are all song elements. This discussion should start with the determination of who created original content or what elements were executed based on another individual’s ideas.
- Publish your names: Once the song is released online, provide written credit to the appropriate person responsible for creating or helping create different song elements, or include attribution in the packaging of a released recording.
- Copyrights are automatic: Songs are automatically copyrighted once they are fixed in some hardcopy form (cassette, computer file, lyrics or sheet music).. But registration is strongly recommended, as it is required to bring a lawsuit against an infringer or recover damages from infringement.
- Publishers can be helpful: A song can be sold to a publishing company, which then owns the copyright but pays royalties to the artist. These businesses ideally try to raise the profile of the song to make money.
- Sample old music: Music in the public domain is no longer owned by the songwriter, their estate or a publisher. If you create a new context for this old music, others cannot copy these unique elements.
- Register with BMI or ASCAP: Performance rights organizations monitor media and collect royalties from those who use music in a movie, on the radio, in nightclubs, or online. These royalties go to publishers and songwriters.
Careful what you sign
It is best to consult with an experienced copyright attorney if a songwriter is going to sign a contract or try to enforce one already drafted. Music history is filled with songwriters who did not protect their creations, unfortunately leaving many with much less money and song credits than they otherwise would have earned.