Must I Pay Former Band Members When I Solo-Produce a Cowritten Song?


I was in a band with a friend. We cowrote three songs together, and I sang the vocals. Last year, the band broke up. I've kept making music, singing mostly original songs that I've written. I'm creating a CD of my music, and want to include the songs that the band created. Can I do this, or do I need to pay my friend?


You might feel entitled to use the songs you help to create, especially if you played a very significant role by singing the vocals. However, you are not the only owner of the copyright in the music. If you cowrote music with your friend, then both of you are copyright owners.

Your friend, as a songwriter, is entitled to payment when the song is reproduced. The legal rate is currently (as of early 2017) 9.1 cents per song per CD. For example, if one song is reproduced on 1,000 CDs, the other songwriter is owed $91. This money must be paid by the person or business that is paying for the manufacture of the CDs.

Your friend might not insist on this payment, depending on how amicably your band broke up. The songwriters can also agree to a lower rate or forgo the payments for a period of time. The rate can be higher for extremely long songs. The U.S. Copyright Office maintains a schedule of song rates on its website.

Importantly, though, all songwriters must consent to the first release of the song to the public. If it has already been released to the public on a tape or CD, this will not be an issue and you can release it without your friend's consent.

But if this is the first appearance of the song in the marketplace, you will need your friend's permission. Why is this? Copyright law gives creators certain exclusive rights, and these include the rights of distribution and sale. You cannot unilaterally make the decision to distribute and sell the songs without your co-owner's consent. Imagine that you owed an apartment together; your co-owner could not make the decision to sell it one day without your permission! Thus, you need to have a conversation with your friend about your idea, as well as the potential royalties this person would be entitled to collect.

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