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Q&A: Do I have any rights in a song from which my lyrics were removed?
By Duman & Fiero - 02/21/2005 - 07:47 PM EST

Dear Jon and Gian:

I have been collaborating with another writer for the past year.

He does the music and I do the lyrics, but most of the time I write the lyrics first and he then adds music to them.

We agreed on a 50/50 share of any revenues generated from our songs.

Recently my collaborator met a performer who expressed some interest in hearing our material. I wrote new lyrics specifically for a song to be presented to them. My collaborator added the music and put the demo together and we then forwarded it to the performer and her manager.

Once they heard it, they informed us that they loved the music, but they were not interested in the lyrics. Upon receiving this news, my collaborator informed the performer that she could use the music and write her own lyrics.

I told him that he could not separate my lyrics from his music without getting my approval to do so, being 50% shareholder of the copyright. He disagreed saying melody has nothing to do with lyrics and vice versa. I say that my lyrics have everything to do with the melody as my words were used to create the melody.

I recently terminated the collaboration.

My question is:

Do I have any rights that have been infringed upon and whether I am entitled to sharing in any revenue that may accrue from the recording of the song from which my lyrics were removed?

-Ray





Dear Ray:

Based on your letter, both you and your collaborator appear to share an ownership interest in the song you co-created, including the right to share in the revenue generated by the song (or from the separate use of the lyrics or the music).

However, your rights will not have been “officially” infringed upon, until your collaborator either fails to account for your share of revenue he receives from the song (or its lyrical/musical components), or otherwise does something to interfere with your own right to use the song (including each component).

Because the song was comprised of original creative elements (the music and the lyrics) which you and your writing partner each contributed with the intention of merging them into a single composition, those separate elements became irreversibly intertwined at the time of contribution, to become what is referred to under the Copyright Act as a "joint work."

By way of analogy, think of two chefs who “collaborate” in baking a cake.

The flour contributed by one of them, and sugar contributed by the other, become permanently joined when the cake is baked, and the chefs are not able to thereafter divide the cake back into its original ingredients. In the case of artistic collaborations, although it is physically possible to “uncombine” the individual contributions (unlike a cake), the copyright laws ensure the same result, by providing that, once the separate “ingredients” are combined to create the joint work, the collaborators must share the right to benefit from the joint work as a whole, or any part of it (regardless of who actually contributed what).

Why?

Because each author is considered to have an “undivided” interest in the entire copyright to a joint work, including the separate “ingredients” contributed by the other collaborator(s). Specifically, any co-owner has a non-exclusive right to perform, reproduce and license the work without the consent of the others, as long as they account to the others for any income received; however, a co-author can not grant exclusive rights to the song without the written consent of all other co-authors.

In other words, your collaborator can not use the music without your lyrics without paying you your share of revenues generated from the song - even if he uses lyrics contributed by another writer, or if he (or the performer) elects to use the composition as an instrumental.

Unless there is an express agreement to the contrary between co-owners, all rights in the song (including the right to share in any profits) are presumed to be shared equally among all of the co-owners (50/50 in your case).

It should also be noted that nearly all of the co-ownership rights we’ve described, including the ownership percentages and the rights concerning the respective separate contributions, can be modified by contract between co-owners. In fact, because of the potential for disagreement and hair-splitting between collaborating songwriters (particularly when one or more of them is unhappy with the presumptions otherwise imposed by law), many bands address songwriting issues in their band partnership agreements, whereas songwriters who regularly create compositions together will address them within a collaboration agreement. These agreements will generally address the following issues:

1. How songwriting income is to be split/shared.
2. If one of the parties can make changes to the material, and if so, under what conditions.
3. The circumstances under which one party may withdraw material from the collaborative work.
4. If the parties may collaborate with others.
5. The conditions that may cause the collaborative relationship to end.
6. What happens to the collaborative work after the termination of the relationship.
7. What happens to unused collaborations after a period of time.

Of course, any of our readers who have questions regarding collaborator agreements, copyrights, or disputes pertaining to these issues, should consult with a music business attorney or other qualified professional, in order maximize and protect your rights to the fullest possible extent.

Good luck to you Ray. Don't get discouraged by your situation! Collaboration is the basis of quality songwriting and hopefully you'll find a partner who respects you and your contributions.


-Jon & Gian

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