Remember That Song We “Wrote Together”?

Ah, Co-Writing. What a great way to write a song that you wouldn’t, and couldn’t, have written by yourself.

Ah, Co-Writing. How the hell do we figure out the “splits” on our co-written song?

Ah, Co-Writing. But you didn’t actually write the song with me, so why are you asking for a writer’s credit?

There are many reasons why it’s important to understand the sharing of copyright on co-written songs, or on songs that you write without the help of other writers. Buckle in, this is going to be a bumpy ride…

Before going any further: this discussion is not a substitute for professional legal advice, and should not be used as your sole source of information on music copyright. The opinions expressed throughout are solely the opinions of the author, and should not be interpreted as “fact”.

It All Starts With A Song

To get fundamental for a moment: “Copyright” means “the right to copy”, and is a right held by the creator of the property (or, in some cases, the party who paid for the creation of the property). In music, it can apply to songs with or without words, but for this discussion, let’s focus on songs with words. In this context, the copyright of a song protects only the melody and lyrics, which means:

  • a song title is not protected by copyright
  • the choice of chords (harmony) is not protected by copyright
  • the choice of rhythm elements (groove) is not protected by copyright
  • the song, as a property, is distinct from any sound recording of that song, which has its own copyright

To extend this definition a little further:

  • A new arrangement of an existing song – meaning a change in any or all of the chords (harmonies), groove, tempo, key, which still retains the melody and lyric of the original song – is considered to be the same song.
  • A new song which shares some of the melody and lyrics of an existing song, is considered to infringe upon the copyright of the existing song.
  • A new song with no significant sharing of melody and lyrics does not infringe upon the copyright of an existing song (there is a technical definition of what constitutes a “significant” sharing of melody and lyrics).

But Aren’t Those Lines Getting Blurred?

I know, you’re asking – what about the recent “Blurred Lines” court ruling? The song had no significant melody and lyrics in common with the argued Marvin Gaye song, but the court ruled that a copyright violation had occurred, so what gives?

In this case, the court found reason to decide that the Marvin Gave song in question undoubtedly contributed to the creation of “Blurred Lines”. This particular court case is a very confusing one, and troubling to many creators nowadays, but let’s leave it as a special case for now.

Protect My Rights

Back to the song, and to legal copyright. What does it mean to be “protected” by copyright? Well, it means that the copyright holder has the right to control the use of the property – in this case, the “song”. Anyone who wants to use the song – whether it’s to sell radio advertising or streaming subscriptions, to synchronize to film or television content, to play to phone customers while they’re “on hold”, or simply for an artist to perform the song to an audience or for a sound recording – is required to obtain a license to use the song for that purpose. This is how the writer gets paid. Any use of a song without the required license is a violation of copyright. There are simple mechanisms in place for Music Users to obtain licenses from Music Creators.

The Other Properties

Quickly, I’ll mention that the copyright on a song is not the same as the copyright on a sound recording of that song. A record label generally holds the copyright on the sound recordings that they pay to create, a copyright which allows the label to get paid for broadcasts, performances and placements of that sound recording. A music publisher essentially deals in the copyright of songs regardless of how and when they are recorded. There are reportedly over two thousand different recordings of Paul McCartney’s song “Yesterday”. Each of the those sound recordings are protected by their own copyright, and each of those sound recordings were (ideally) created under a license to use the song.

Do The Splits

Alright, so this very brief discussion of copyright is all leading up to the original question – what do I need to know about splitting shares of a song with other people?

The copyright on a song has two parts:

  1. The Writer’s Share, and
  2. The Publisher’s Share

The publisher controls the use of the song.  Money generated by issuing licenses to use a song, are to be split equally to those holding the Writer’s Share and the Publisher’s Share.  If you are self-published, then you get both the Writer’s Share and the Publisher’s Share, but might not generate much revenue because you don’t have a professional publisher working to exploit your property (in a good way).

When you write with another songwriter, you split the writer’s share between you both.  The publisher share is also split between your publishers, which might be you as self-published writers, or either of your shares may become property of a publisher, if you are contracted to write for a publisher.

But It’s Simple, Isn’t It?

Many writers become confused in deciding how to split the song among co-writers. One would think that it’s a simple question – did you write the song with other writers, or not? Nowadays, there can be over a dozen writers credited with a song on the pop charts, and it can be difficult to imagine all of those writers collaborating on the same song.

  • Sometimes, all of those names represent writers who actually contributed to the writing of the song, whether in a room at the same time, or through the combination of their efforts.
  • Some songs are “written” through the isolated contributions of many, many creators, and though their contributions don’t always fall under “melody” or “lyric”, they can be considered to be co-creators of the song.
  • Other times, a writer credit is given to someone who actually had no input into the writing of the song, or to an artist recording the song, in lieu of payment or in response to some form of exaction or even extortion.
  • Often, a song written by two co-writers might be re-written with the help of a third, or fourth, or fifth co-writer, resulting in a change of the splits after agreeing on an initial split.
  • It can be confusing to decide whether a writer helped to write “the song”, or contributed something to the arrangement that gets recorded or performed by a particular artist.

Would the Writers in the Room Please Raise a Hand

What if I can’t figure out who shared in the writing of the song, or by how much? And what if my co-writer wants to share credit with someone else?

There are many opinions on how to split the song:

  • Every writer gets an equal share
  • Maybe 50% of the song goes to those who wrote lyrics, and 50% goes to those who wrote melody
  • It depends on how many words you came up with
  • It depends on how good your parts of the song are
  • It depends on whether you helped to pay for the demo
  • That one co-writer smelled a little funny
  • and on, and on.

These are simply opinions. The “equal share” opinion is the most widely shared. It can be impossible to agree on anything different, and attempting to do so will likely kill a co-writer relationship. Even a writer who contributes fewer words can have a powerful influence on the completed song.

JUST MY OPINION: It makes little sense to argue that one writer’s contribution is less important than another’s, since it can be impossible to measure how strongly every second of a song resonates with any given listener.

When your co-writer decides to enlist the help of another writer to improve the song, you should expect that your share in the finished song will get smaller. (If you think the “finished” song is no better or possibly worse than the version of the song that you co-wrote, you could choose to pursue publishing your version of the song, but might encounter obstacles with another version of the same song being “out there”.)

There are times when it is entirely appropriate to defend your copyright share. One writer may decide to “gift” a share of the writing credit to a non-writer as a form of payment for services received, and if your co-writer wants to diminish your share for this reason, I would advise against it. Find some way to show appreciation to a producer, arranger, musician, etc., other than to call them a writer on the song.

Remember, This is a Creation Story

Still having trouble deciding who gets a writer share? Consider the evolution of a song:

  • Song ideas/inspirations are formed
  • Songwriting/Rewriting/Collaborating
  • Melody and Lyrics finished
  • Arrangement created
  • Song recorded

If we respect that a “song” copyright can only protect melody and lyrics, then as soon as the melody and lyrics are decided, the act of “creating a song” is finished. At that point, efforts turn to “creating an arrangement of the song” and finally “creating a sound recording” of that arrangement.

  • A Producer who combines an artist’s vision with a completed song to create a sound recording – NOT A WRITER
  • A Producer or Musician who creates any sound components (beats, riffs, chord progressions, etc.) which INFLUENCE the creation of melody and/or lyrics – DEFINITELY A WRITER
  • A Producer or Musician who applies their talent to arrange or perform an already written song – NOT A WRITER
  • A Producer or Musician whose ideas influence the creation of melody and/or lyrics (even just by setting a mood) – DEFINITELY A WRITER
  • Consider this: did someone else’s contribution lead to the creation of a song that you wouldn’t have created without them?
  • If you decided to give a writing credit to the person whom you overheard at lunch, who said something profound to stimulate your writing, that would be cool – though it’s YOU as the writer who generally turns such overheard comments into an emotional song experience.

Now consider this: If we were to give the arranger, producer, and musicians a writer’s share of the song, then those players would own copyright in the song and share in license revenue, even if the song is later re-arranged and re-recorded by other players. This would actually give them influence in the licensing – or NON licensing – of sound recordings of the song, that they didn’t even participate in creating. If any of these players truly played a part in influencing the creation of those lyrics and melody, then they SHOULD be considered co-writers, but if their contributions – as worthwhile as they may be – came after the creation of melody and lyrics, then find some other way to reward them for their contributions. Consider giving them a share in the Sound Recording copyright, because that is truly the property which reflects their talents and efforts.

Rubber, Meet Road…

Hopefully, this approach makes sense to you as a writer. Consider it more of a guideline, because there will always be exceptions to every rule, and nothing is more important than creating great music and enjoying the process (which includes maintaining positive relationships with your co-writers and partners). Protect yourself and your creations, but not at the expense of good relationships.

And sometimes, at the end of the day, the “business” end of the music business will rule all, and may “swipe left” to relegate these “conventions”. You might find yourself facing a terrific opportunity for your song, but if you’re the player in the room with the least leverage, the wise move may be to just take what you can get. If a successful artist offers to record and promote your song in return for a writer’s credit, then perhaps owning 50% of “something” is better than owning 100% of “nothing”. Fight the good fight, lick your wounds and live to write another day.

If you like what you read above, maybe you'd like to work with Allister at Tilted White Shed? Reach out through the Contact Us page.