You write the lyrics, someone else writes the tune. Who owns the copyright?

You write the lyrics, someone else writes the tune. Who owns the copyright?

In the triangle of lyricist-composer-producer, various copyrights are generated on which royalties are payable. But who gets the lion's share?

Audio Masterclass

Question from an RP visitor...

"Are melody (songwriting?) and music (mixing?) two separate things copyright/royalty wise? I'm asking you this because I am a lyricist and what I do is write the lyrics then have a demo mixed by someone who also adds the vocals (my lyrics) to the track.

"Upon completion of this I may give my star producer the demo version, he changes it heaps and turns it into a pro mix, improves the song by being a co-writer and creates a proper melody and music mix (finished track).  

"What is copyright/royalty of the person that does the demo, is his/her contribution songwriting (e.g. co-melody writer) or music only (e.g. co-mixing/arranger)? I don't understand the distinctive difference between melody and music. I know if you permanently buy all the rights to a demo mix (all rights including copyright/royalties)  there is no issue. But what happens if the person who mixes the demo doesn't sell you all its rights? What would be owing to him/her from the finished product?  Co-Writing credit or a share of producer royalties, or both?"

I hope I am understanding this correctly. You write the lyrics and someone else who is composer writes the melody. The composer also makes the demo recording. Then you take the demo to a producer who improves the demo and turns it into a finished track.

It is vital to remember that there are two separate and distinct copyrights here - one in the song and the other in the recording. If the song had never been recorded, then copyright in the song would exist (as long as it is written down). And if someone records your song (which in the US they can do without your permission, on payment of a standard royalty, if it has already been released previously), then they own the copyright in the recording.

So, up to the point of the demo, you and your composer share ownership of the copyright of the song in whatever proportions you have agreed - usually 50/50.

The next part is the gray area. It is normally considered to be one of the functions of the producer to improve the song. This could be by rearranging the order of the sections. Or it could be by suggesting that you rewrite some of the lyrics.

In either of these cases, you and the composer still own the copyright in the song entirely.

However, if the producer rewrites some of the lyrics himself, he could be entitled to claim a share of the copyright of the finished song.

Unless it is agreed whether or not this will be the case, then you are storing up a problem for the future when the song becomes successful. You could end up in court deciding the ownership of the copyright, and the lawyers will get most of the money!

So you have to get an agreement in writing one way or the other. My preference would be for the producer not to get any share of the copyright of the song unless a specific further agreement was made.

So if he rewrites one line, then he doesn't get a share. If he rewrites half of the song he can suggest that you give him a co-writing credit. And if you don't agree, then he might not let you use his lyrics, which clearly are his at this stage.


Now, the recording...

There is a separate copyright in the recording and you need to be sure who owns this.

You can't assume that you own it simply because you are paying the producer a fee for his time. There may be a clause in the producer's standard terms of business that states that he owns the copyright, or perhaps a share of it. Or the legal system wherever you live might automatically grant the producer copyright, like a wedding photographer keeps copyright in their photos, even though they have been paid to take them.

So the producer could be paid a fee for his work, and you have an agreement that states that in return for this fee, the copyright in the recording is yours. Or you could agree a producer royalty, but the copyright would still be yours. It is not in your interest to allow any share of the copyright in the recording to remain with the producer.


The world is full of horror stories concerning copyright. Does anyone have a story to tell us?

Publication date: Sunday April 11, 2010
Author: David Mellor



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Earlier discussion on this topic...

Bpayne, Yomammastown, Inyomammasass

ayo cuzzin I got fo hit records but da muthafuckin A&R wanna use dat shiit fo Gucci when he get out a jail, I told dat bitch hell naw but dey signed my contract an shit said I had to let dem do dat shit what can i do about dat shit shun, I just gonna take da advence an run off an make my owne shit den shun
Monday April 19, 2010

K P, ?, USA

The thing about extremely musical producers is that they usually end up MAKING ur song. due to the fact that alot of producers are just making "beats" or just sitting in the room organizing song structure for bands makes it rather difficult for songwriters to even think about sharing any kind of credit with they're producer. i typically write songs musically as a producer with a lyricist and due to the intense musical involvement its rather difficult for the artist to refuse....the music is making the song!
Sunday April 18, 2010

Orión Vargas, Medellín, Colombia

Both. One thing is the melody which we can call MUSIC. And the other are the lyrics. Logically speaking 50%-50%. ¿What are words with out a melody? ¿What are words with a melody? = a song.
Friday April 16, 2010

Jl, Md, USA

“Never give anyone, a single percent of your song.” It is your song and your idea. Record companies have hidden clauses in their contracts for the sharing of DVDs, CDs merchandise, etc. So BEWARE. The record companies and producers all will want a cut regardless. Stand tuff. Stand your ground and do not give them any percentage of your songs, they will still make money. They just want it all. It is probably the only thing you will ever have some small control over, when it’s all said and done. A producer normally makes his deal with the record company for his percentage before the project ever starts anyhow. Once again, do not give anyone the rights to your music, (especially Managers, Publishers, Record Companies etc, always keep your rights to the music). If you work with a partner, it is okay to share the profits at whatever percentage you both agree to. However, even in this circumstance you give up controlling interest. Lets say you give your partner 10%, at this point you have no final say, as to what happens with the song. Now you must deal with your partner. Example: My partner, and I wrote a song with two other songwriters a few years back. Once the song was completed, the other two songwriters wanted to place the song with Jobete’s Publishing Co. (Motown). We on the other hand wanted to place it with our Publishing Co. The other writers threaten us by using the old twisting of the arm tactic, (Either you sign the release, or the song will be placed on the shelf. If you like to know more about the pit falls of the music business, feel free to contact me.
Friday April 16, 2010

True Media Productions, Baltimore, USA

I am the owner of an online songwriting demo service and as someone with integrity, I will not provide music or melody to any of my clients songs. They must provide a mp3 with someone singing their lyrics whether it is them or someone else. Most of the time a guitar or piano along with the singing is requested just so I can get a good idea of what they want in their song. From that point I can go ahead and provide all the instrumentation, arranging, recording and production which includes the mixing and so forth. At this point these are the things I am getting paid to do and I never assume any copyright for my work on the song. I may make a few suggestions to my clients and they may use them or maybe not but still I don't expect any copyright to that song. So in essence I release the entire copyright to the songwriters. On the other hand I do work with a personal friend of mine who is mainly a lyricist and in that case I do provide everything else including music and melody and we have a verbal understanding and agreement that we both share in the songwriter's copyright straight down the middle. We always register our songs jointly to the copyright office. I do feel if I help someone write a song that I am entitled to part of the copyright so that is why I keep my policy of not working with a "lyricist only songwriter" It keeps me out of any of those situations. I have been burned in the past where I have written entire bridges to the end of the song both lyrics and melody and not assumed copyright for anything where I probably should have. But now I keep myself out of those situations completely. You learn as you go along and I find that my clients and songwriters respect that aspect from me. They never feel hesitant of losing any part of their copyright when working with me.
Friday April 16, 2010

Michael Jones, Orange, Ca, USA

With the last group I worked with, we broke the writing up into 3 sections, each one weighted with 1/3 the copyright. Concept, Lyrics and Arrangement. Then all involved in each section got their share of that section evenly. So like if teh guitar player came in with a riff, or a song skeleton then he got a check for concept. Someone helped him refine the song structure they got a check for concept too. Vocalist maybe worked out the lyrics with a producer, so they both got checks there. Entire band worked out the kinks in the arrangement, so each person who actively participated got credit for that. Then it was just simple math for each section for song we did. Compensation and credits were a breeze. It's just one example, but I think the name of the game here is to talk it over and be fair. Most folks don't get their panties in a bunch if they are getting credit for their work. It kinda feels like a premarital agreement when you do it, but those work too.
Friday April 16, 2010

Phillip Grant, Mobile, Al., USA

Great article... One question (and a bit of a comment), where can I find online examples of these "get-it-in-writing" documents? In other words - and this would be very helpful in all RecordProducer.Com articles - Can you include some helpful links?
Friday April 16, 2010

Jai, Essex, UK

Along with the knowledge of the two copyrights in a song / musical work, I have always been under the impression that the copyright in the recording of anything lies with the person / organisation who owns the equipment that the recording was recorded on, full stop. Obviously, whoever wrote the work owns the copyright in the 'virtual' written score / sheet music, and / or lyrics. I would presume that provided these facts are kept in mind, no one party can get too burnt. Any other percentages, etc, can be a tailored agreement between the parties involved for that particular work.
Friday April 16, 2010

Ian, Melb., Australia

Yeh I spent hundreds of hours playing kit / bass / vox . and recording/producing to world standard, then the creeps vanished without a trace. No payee. One got a 1/2 demo cd, the other got naught. Believe me these songs are right up there with the best. So nothing signed .....where does that leave me. I'd love to get that stuff out there.
Friday April 16, 2010

Devon Graves, Vienna, Austria

I work both as a self produced recording artist and a producer for other artists. I have also worked as a recording artist with a hired producer. It has always been a strong point never to give any publishing rights to anyone but the author of the music and lyrics. The norm is a 50/50 split between the two. This becomes sticky when a group of five members write music (sharing a 50% split) and the singer (me) would take a 50% split all to him/her self. This does cause some animosity within the group. However it is laid out on the publishing contract provided by GEMA exactly in this way. If the band has hard feelings over this, maybe they should write some lyrics. To me, as a composer and lyricist, lyrics are by far the hardest part. Music just flows and almost writes itself in my case. The lyrics are agonizing, but rewarding beyond words when a truly poetic phrase is put to a song. They give the song its face, its meaning, its vision. The only person who should ever be entitled to share in this would be a producer who had a great influence on the music, arrangement, melody and/or lyrics. I think Mutt Lang takes half right off the top! But his music sells so well that I dont think AD/DC or Def Leppard complained much since his contribution lent heavily to the success of the product. I also rewrite lyrics and melodies for many bands I have produced, but so far, I never asked for any of the publishing. I would deffinately regret that should a song go #1 but since I produce a lot of metal, there is not much risk in that these days:)
Friday April 16, 2010

Paul, London, UK

I agree with Dabat. Don't be greedy and always go for an amicable split. Life's too short. Rule of thumb. Every writer should get an equal share, any other way is asking for trouble. Producers often act as arrangers - arrangers are generally paid a fee - this is often included in the producers fee. Check this out with the producer early on!
Friday April 16, 2010

D.a.calf, Melbourne, Australia

Respect to for attempting to interpret that question. How convoluted!
Friday April 16, 2010

Dabat, London, UK

its 50/50 in most cases. All depends how established you are as a lyricist or a composer. In my early days I wrote a song a complete song that I now own 12% of because the artist would not let it go on the album unless he had 50% and his publishing company wanted 30% and 18% went to a spanish interpreter. It was a number one too. You can argue the breakdown of 1/3 split to the music, 1/3 to the top melody, and a 1/3 to the lyricist. These days alot of the production becomes writing too. The point is one influences the other. So dont be greedy and try and make an amicable split.
Friday April 16, 2010