Ten Legal Tips for Songwriters: Credits, Copyrights, and Coauthors

Here are ten tips to make your songwriting a business success.

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Brian Farkas, Attorney · Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law

You might have written an outstanding song with a fabulous melody, great lyrics, and memorable hooks. Yet your work shouldn't end there. Songwriting raises many business and legal issues, such as who gets royalties and credit for a song, what tax deductions you can claim for home studios or instrument purchases, whether you should register a copyright, and more.

Musicians must consider these sorts of practical issues, especially if they aim to make a living from their creative work. Below are ten tips to help manage the legal and business sides of your songwriting.

1. Determine Who Gets Songwriting Revenue Early On

Musicians are often working in groups. One person might write the lyrics, another might write the melody, and others might play and record the finished product.

If you are writing with collaborators, as soon as you finish a song, you should agree with them about how to split potential revenues. Does the lead vocalist make as much as the lead guitarist? What about the person who did the audio mixing? How much time and work did each put into the song?

These questions can lead to difficult and sometimes emotional conversations. That is precisely why it is important to have these conversations early, well before streams of revenue begin flowing in or hard feelings arise. If you wait until after you have revenue, you could end up sorting out money and payments with band members who have long since left the group, or who've become more self-interested.

Many bands also include non-writing members as having a right to any income. Unless you resolve these splits of credit and revenue now, you may end up having difficult arguments once the song receives broader distribution.

2. Determine Who Gets Songwriting Credit

A songwriting copyright is awarded to those who jointly contributed to the song's structure, chord progressions, and lyrics. This can be anyone, even the members of the rhythm section. (In many songs, especially in rock, pop, and dance music, a bass or drum part is so integral to the song that it becomes as important as the melody).

The best way to decide who gets credit is either for the members of the band to determine who wrote the songs, or to ignore the traditional rules and share equally (or by some other formula) in all band-written tunes.

These decisions will be highly specific depending on the relationship between yourself and your collaborators. Again, this is a conversation to have at the outset, once a song is created, not after it hits the airwaves.

3. Publicize Songwriters' Names and Copyrights

Merely writing a song is not enough to get it played on the radio or in clubs. You will need to promote it! Just be sure that you promote it with explicit copyright details. Once you've established who wrote a song, publicize the names and how to contact you or your music publisher.

When preparing music for downloads (usually as MP3s, AACs, or WMAs) make use of the text tags that allow you to encode the names of the songwriters and any related copyright information. Ditto for any websites or online materials. This will help to keep the members' rights relatively equal and clear. It will also avoid situations where contributors feel that their contributions are being sidelined and ignored, which can lead to conflict.

4. Consider "Cowriting" With a Deceased Songwriter

Having trouble writing a catchy tune or making money? You might try the approach of Vera Matson, who took a civil war song, "Aura Lee," and added her own lyrics. The result was "Love Me Tender," a monster hit for Elvis Presley and many other artists. Older music (published before 1923) like "Aura Lee" is not protected by copyright, and therefore is said to be in the "public domain." It's free for anyone to copy.

Others may use these tunes as well, but cannot copy the unique elements that you add. For more information about locating tunes in the public domain, consult Stephen Fishman's book The Public Domain: How to Find Copyright-Free Writings, Music, Art & More (Nolo).

5. Register With BMI and ASCAP

BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) and ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) are known as the most influential performance rights organizations. They monitor radio and television stations, nightclubs, websites, and other entities that play music.

They collect royalties from these places, and pay the royalties directly to the music publishers and songwriters (so you get payments directly, not your publisher or manager). Be sure to register with BMI or ASCAP and keep your information current.

6. Don't Be Afraid to Assign the Copyright for a Deal

"Don't give up your copyright," is the cry often heard from musicians and songwriters. Yes, it's true that the music business is rife with tales of woe about songwriters like Richard Berry, who gave up his copyright for "Louie, Louie" for $750. (Berry eventually won a $2 million court judgment over the song.)

The reality is that just about every songwriter who signs with a major music publisher gives up the copyright to the song. In return, the publisher pays the songwriter a hefty portion of the royalties over the life of the copyright. Often, the songwriter, not the music publisher, earns the bigger share of the songwriting royalties and benefits from the music publisher's hustle.

The bottom line: If you're dealing with a reputable music publisher, do not be afraid to sign off on copyright, especially if an experienced entertainment attorney examines the deal for you. Especially as an unknown musician, you should be aware that your ability to bargain is somewhat constrained by these industry norms. (Check out Nolo's guide to Hiring an Entertainment Lawyer, to ensure that you have proper counsel when making this sort of decision.)

7. Market Your Songs to Nontraditional Media

Changes in technology have altered the ways in which songs earn money. One of the biggest sources for music listening hours, for example, is video games.

In addition, advertising agencies, motion picture and TV companies, and Internet websites have all opened up new licensing opportunities. For example, MTV discovered one songwriter at MP3.com and licensed his music for background in its Real World television series, resulting in payments from MTV and later from BMI.

8. Consider Taking a Lower Percentage of Revenue From an Established Publisher

If you create your own music publishing company, you will receive 100% of the songwriting revenue. If you sell your song to an existing music publisher, you'll probably earn 60-75% of the song revenue.

But do not assume that getting a larger percentage of the revenue is always better. An established publisher might be better equipped to get you deals, especially lucrative ones, such as placing your songs in a movie or an advertisement.

9. Consider Registering Your Copyright

You do not actually have to register your music with the U.S. Copyright Office in order to get copyright protection. In most countries, including the U.S. and Canada, all that is required for a song to be copyrighted is that it be "original" and "fixed."

"Original" means that the song is original to the writer and that it was not copied from another source. A work is "fixed" when it exists in some tangible manner such as sheet music, a tape recording, or saved onto a computer disk.

Although copyright registration is not necessary to protect your song, it can help protect it from infringement, especially if your song is registered prior to an infringement or within three months of its release (you may be able to recover more money from an infringer in that case).

For more information on copyright registration, check out the website of the U.S. Copyright Office, which is the federal agency managing copyright registrations for music as well as visual and performing arts creations.

10. Take Advantage of Tax Breaks for Home Office Use

If you regularly use part of your home exclusively to compose and record your songs, and you have no other fixed location where you do such things, you can claim a home office tax deduction. How much you can claim toward your home office deduction depends on how much (what percentage) of your home you use as a home office or studio.

For example, if you use 20% of your home, you can allot 20% of your home office expenses (such as rent, depreciation, mortgage interest, property taxes, electricity, gas, insurance) to the home office deduction.

If you do take the home office deduction and then sell your home, however, you could lose the capital gains tax exemption on the home office portion of your home. This won't happen if you live in the home two out of the five years before you sell it.

For more information on the home office deduction, read IRS Publication 587, Business Use of Your Home or Nolo's book Deduct It!: Lower Your Small Business Taxes by Stephen Fishman.

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