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

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of

Sunday April 11, 2010

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

A question from an Audio Masterclass website 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, copyright in 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?

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