For many songwriters and composers, music creation is fueled purely by their love of the art-form. No surprise then that many do not take the time after collaborating on musical works to iron out and agree to ownership rights, control rights and revenue splits.
Perhaps it’s because most creatives tend to shy away from the business side of things; or maybe they think agreements between collaborative writers are too complex for them to handle. Whatever the reason or the thinking, if you’re a composer or songwriter, failing to set agreements about ownership and revenue splits could mean major trouble in the future!
According to Entertainment lawyer, Wallace E. J. Collins III, considering the myriad issues that can arise, devising and signing off a copyright and ownership agreement is highly recommended. Collins explains that in the absence of a written agreement, under current case law concerning both copyright and partnership law, two or more collaborators are generally deemed to share equally on a pro-rata basis. This he says, may be so, even if it is clear that the contributions of the authors were not equal, since the Courts generally prefer not to make decisions about the value of each author’s contribution to a copyright. Alternatively, music co-writers can divide copyright ownership in whatever portion they determine by establishing a written agreement.
Outside of a determination of the song’s copyright ownership and revenue share, Wallace adds that the written agreement can also be utilized to determine who will handle the administration rights of the work. He notes that generally most songwriters prefer that there is separate administration among the various writers and their respective publishing companies, whereby each author retains control over their respective share of the copyright. Wallace explains that in this way, each writer is able to retain some control over what happens with the song, the scope of the license and the amount charged.
As it relates to US copyright law, Wallace explains that each joint copyright owner can exploit the song and also grant non-exclusive licenses to third parties, subject to the duty to account to the co-writers for any money that is generated. Additionally he notes that each writer could transfer all or some of their respective share of the copyright to another party without affecting the ownership interests of other co-writers in the copyright. Further he states that unless this is expressed in a written agreement signed by all parties, no one writer can grant an exclusive license nor transfer copyright ownership in the entire song without the written permission of each co-writer.
These are the kind of issues which Wallace says can be addressed in a written collaboration agreement. He notes that there are endless variations depending on the circumstances, and that the written collaboration agreement can be tailored to suit the needs and wants of the parties involved. For example, he notes that each author could retain his or her share of revenues and ownership, but grant the administration rights to one party, thereby rendering the synchronization licensing process more seamless, as it is usually more convenient for one party to have the right to grant license and to collect and divide all of the income.
And Wallace says, there is no need for the written agreement to be complex. It can be as simple as a pie chart drawing made on a napkin at a dinner after the writing session, signed by all parties he offers! Alternatively it could take the form of a more structured writer’s agreement. The main factors to consider is that the agreement speaks to copyright, revenue and control splits, and that it is signed by all parties.