Under the copyright law, an author or creator owns a copyright in his or her work the moment it is "fixed in a tangible medium" (i.e., the moment the expression of an idea is written down or recorded in some manner). When it comes to the recorded music business there are two primary copyrights of interest: one in the musical composition or song; another in the sound recording of that song. A copyright extends for the life of an author plus 70 years, and in the case of collaborators on a copyright it extends for the life of the last surviving collaborator plus 70 years.
Co-writers can divide copyright ownership in whatever proportion they determine, and that ownership concerns both rights (ownership and control) and revenues (income generated). 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 might 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 and simply divide it by the number of authors (and we probably prefer that Courts not be making decisions about whether the hook or chorus lyric has more or less value than the chorus melody, etc.). Therefore, without a written agreement two songwriters would be deemed to own the song fifty-fifty, three songwriters one-third each, etc. A typical music business guideline for dividing ownership has been to designate the music as 50% and the lyric 50% of the song copyright. Under this scenario, if one person creates the music and two others write the lyrics, they may agree to divide the ownership 50% to the music creator and 25% to each of the lyricists. However, this concept does not have any legal significance so if there is no written collaboration agreement then under this scenario each author would own 1/3rd of the song copyright.
All of these issues can be addressed in a written collaboration agreement. There are endless variations depending on the circumstances. Each author may retain his or her share of revenues and ownership but grant the administration rights to one party (e.g., the artist/co-writer and/or its label) so that the artist would have the right to record and exploit the song and grant third party licenses. Particularly in the world of synchronization licenses (i.e., using the audio with visual images such as in film, television or video games), it is usually more convenient for one party to have the right to grant licenses and to collect and divide all the income. Licensing can become complicated when a licensee has to seek the approval of, and document permission from, multiple writers and their respective publishers. However, each different scenario and the co-writers involved will need to determine and negotiate what arrangement works best for themselves in that particular situation.
At the end of the day, if you believe in yourself and your talents, give yourself the benefit of the doubt, and invest in good legal representation - all the successful songwriters do. Your lawyer can create a fair collaboration agreement for you to use or "translate" the documentation presented to you and explain its terms and then help negotiate more favorable terms for you as appropriate.
Hangi Tavakoli is our in-house established and professional music producer with more than 14 years of experience in music production, mix and mastering, recording engineering, live sound designing/engineering, lyrics writing and music arrangement. He has produced more than 800 and written more than 2000 published songs to-date, including some major hits in international scale.Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.