Who owns the songs you write?

What you must do to ensure you receive your share of the song’s royalties.

Rule Number One: Be sure you don’t leave the writers’ room without noting each co-writer’s contact info, publishing info, percentage split and P.R.O. affiliation.

Rule Number Two: Only people actively involved in writing the song should be present in the writers’ room.

Let’s see why those rules are so important to you, the songwriter.

You’ve just written a new song and you feel pretty certain that it has real ‘hit’ potential, if it gets cut by the right act. In fact, the song is a co-write: you co-wrote it with John and Mary during a two-hour session in a writing room.  At some point – maybe not right away – but at some point, you are going to get the song lyrics typed up in the correct format and submit it to the US Copyright Office using the online electronic (eCO) system.

You’ll also register the song with your P.R.O. because that is how you will earn royalties when the song gets cut. As there are three writers, it is possible that it will be registered with as many as three P.R.O.s: ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. (See note at the end of this article for links to song registration info for each of the three P.R.O.s.)

But wait a minute.

Who actually owns the copyright to the song the three of you have just written?  More importantly, what percentage of the royalties generated by the song does each of you own? What is your ‘split’?  Maybe it doesn’t seem important right now because if the song never gets cut, then a hundred percent of nothing is still nothing.  But what if your hunch was right and the song does have hit potential?  What if the song is a Number One hit single and then gets added to a multi-platinum ‘Greatest Hits’ album and also scores millions of downloads?  Now the writers’ split issue gets very important indeed!

As a general rule, if you agree to a co-write, it’s understood that each of the ‘collaborators’ (to use the legal description) is entitled to an equal split of the writers’ share of the royalties generated by the song. (We’ll get to the Song Publishers’ split in a minute.)

More than once, I’ve heard a songwriter emerge from a writing session and mutter that “[name] didn’t contribute anything” to the co-write. But an entire song might have been spawned by a single line – maybe three of four words – that one writer brought to the table.

A single line can spawn a hit song

That’s exactly what happened when Jerry Butler and Otis Redding got together after performing in a show in Chicago in the mid 1960s.  They talked about writing a song together and Butler said he had a line going around in his head: “I’ve been loving you too long to stop now.”  They didn’t take it any further that night, but Redding returned to Memphis and fleshed out the song from that one line. He recorded the song as a soulful ballad, with that line as the song title.  It sold millions of copies, making it the second biggest seller of Otis Redding’s career.

The only line Jerry Butler contributed was the one that became the song’s title, but without that, the song wouldn’t exist. (As a side note, early copies of the single only list Redding as the writer, something that was rectified after Butler pointed out the error!)

Keep it ‘writers only’ in the writers’ room!

It is advisable to have an agreement before you start any writing session as to what the split will be, if there is to be anything other than an equal split. Again, unless you specify otherwise, in writing, everyone in the writing session gets equal writing credit regardless of each individual’s participation. And that is a very good reason to consider your writing session a ‘closed door’ affair.  That means not letting anyone just ‘hang out’ with you and your co-writers unless you consider them to be actively involved in the creative process. Anyone present in the writers’ room could be entitled to get a writer’s credit!

Case in point: Infamous song producer Phil Spector managed to insinuate himself into early writing-recording sessions where songs were composed by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. As he was there when some songs were written, he gets writer’s credit.  Okay, so it’s unlikely that Phil Spector will crash your writing session (you’d better hope not) but if someone is in the room when you are writing, there’s a strong chance you will find yourself including them in the credit.  And splitting the $$$ with them, if the song gets cut.

What about the song publishers?

Up to now, we’ve talked about the writers’ splits.  But each song gets published and traditionally, the publisher retains half of the revenue from the song.  If you write alone and own your own publishing company, it’s simple: you own the publisher’s 50% AND the writer’s 50%.  If you co-write with one other person and she owns her own publishing, the two publishing companies equally split the publishers’ 50% and the two writers split the writers’ 50% of the total revenue.  The more writers and the more publishing companies, the thinner the slices of the revenue pie become. (I go into more detail about song publishing in my book, “The College of Songology 101: The Singer/Songwriter’s Need To Know Reference Handbook.”  See the note at the end of this article.)

If anything, that situation makes it even more vital that you have an agreement before you write as to whether you all agree to an equal split or not. There could be instances when one writer agrees to take less than an equal split: for example, a novice writer co-writing with a major hit writer, mainly for the experience he or she gains from the session.  But in a case like that – where there will be an unequal split of the writers’ credit – it is essential that the percentage split is clearly spelled out in writing. Never assume that the other collaborator ‘understood’ that would be the case.

Specify the split on the P.R.O. song registration

When you submit your song registration form to your P.R.O. you will see a space where you specify the percentage of the royalty – the split – that each writer is entitled to. You’ll make a similar entry regarding the publishing split.  As there’s a possibility that you and your co-writers are affiliated with different P.R.O.s, it is essential that you agree on the split before the song is registered because the split info must be the same on each P.R.O.s registry.

When it comes to registering the song with P.R.O.s, if two or more writers are affiliated with the same P.R.O. it is important that the song is registered only ONCE with that P.R.O.  For example, if you and John are affiliated with ASCAP and Mary is with BMI, the song you wrote together would be registered once with ASCAP (because you and John are both with ASCAP) and once with BMI. If you and John both submitted the same song to ASCAP, there would be confusion over duplication of writer and publisher. Both you and John receive writer’s credit even though only one of you registered the song with your P.R.O.

The takeaway is this: The writers’ credit is split equally between all the collaborators who created the work, regardless of each collaborator’s actual contribution, unless there is a prior agreement that there will be an uneven split. As the registration with your P.R.O. will include this vital information, be sure all writers are in agreement about the split!

Notes: Each of the P.R.O.s in the United States have slightly different processes when it comes to song registration. Although it is helpful to understand how each of them operates, you only need to be fully familiar with the workings of your own P.R.O.  And, of course you can only register a song with the P.R.O. with which you are affiliated. Here are links to song registration info for ASCAP, BMI and SESAC:

ASCAP registration here. 

BMI registration here.

SESAC registration here. 

Preshias Harris is the author of “The College of Songology 101: The Singer/songwriter’s Need To Know Reference Handbook.”  It is available in print and e-book versions at www.collegeofsongology.com  The book includes more detailed information about the copyright process, song publishing, working with your P.R.O., licensing your music and much more.

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