Music Copyright Now



How To Copyright Music: Joint Works


To Register a copyright, it is essential to understand who has an authoriship interest in the work you want to protect. You also need to know which elements of a song you wish to copyright. When someone asks how to copyright music, they are usually thinking about elements beyond melody.

A so called "copyright on music" often involves multiple elements of authorship, including interests in the lyrics, the recording of a song, and the production associated with that recording.

You need to determine whether the song is a Joint Work.

Many bands write their songs in a collaborative process. Obviously, these are joint works with multiple authors. Sometimes one person will write the music and another will pen the lyrics, intending both to be united to create a song. Once so united, it may NOT be possible to separate their interests later on.

Spend a few moments to learn this information. It will help you throughout your career. When you work with other people, you want to understand who owns what and why.

How many songwriters and musicians don't work with other people?

Below is a letter sent to a client addressing questions about how to copyright music, lyrics and the recording when multiple people were involved in creating the work.

Names changed to protect the innocent!!



Hi Martin:

Good questions. You have to look at the intent of the parties when the songs were written. If you and Linda intended that the music and lyrics would be merged together into a single work, then it is considered a Joint Work. If you want to take the music and add different lyrics, you still have to account to Linda for royalties, in the absence of some written agreement to the contrary.

A Joint Work is created if each contributor intends that his or her portion will be part of a whole work to which another person contributes. Once a joint work is created, each author has an interest in the entire song.

Please NOTE: This information is for United States only!!

Under American law, you have to look at the intent of the parties WHEN THEY MADE THE WORK.

If the author of the music intends, at the time he wrote the music, to merge that music with lyrics, or intends to have lyrics written for it at a later date, then the song will be considered a "Joint Work" under US law.

The same is true for the lyricist: If, at the time of creation of the lyrics, the writer intends to have those lyrics merged to some music, then the lyrics are part of a "Joint Work" when they are in fact merged. This is true even where the lyrics are written 10 years before they are added to music - If, the writer INTENDED at time of creation that, at some point in the future, the lyrics should be added to music. If the intent to merge is there, the lyrics become part of the "Joint Work" when they are in fact combined with music.

In the situation you described, it seems pretty clear that you have a so called "Joint Work". I think this is good news for you.

Once music and lyrics are considered a "Joint Work", they may NOT be separated later on without paying royalties. In others words, if your lyricist in the UK takes those lyrics and puts them to another song, you still have the right to royalty payments.

Once a piece is considered a "Joint Work", all joint owners have an undivided interest in the whole piece. In other words, you have an interest in the lyrics she contributed and she has an interest in the music you created -- as long as you INTENDED at the time of creation that lyrics would be added and she INTENDED at the time of creation that the lyrics would be added to music. Both of these intents are probably going to presumed in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

Location of the writers is irrelevant. It doesn't matter that you've never been in the same room with her. It doesn't matter that you've never actually met each other.

Therefore, it is my opinion that your music and her lyrics are indeed "enslaved" to each other.

The division of royalties will be based on the number of joint authors, a so called pro rata share. In this case you and Linda each have an undivided 50% interest. She can license the work to someone else and so can you. Of course, you each will need to account to each other for royalties due. Each of you will have the right to 50% of the royalties earned from any license issued by the other.

A written contract which expressly separates the ownernship interests of the lyricist and the music composer would change this result.

Sometimes writers will agree that the division of royalties will not be pro-rata. In other words, the songwriters are free to split royalties in whatever percentage they can agree to. Therefore, I must respectfully disagree that the music is worth 75% and lyrics only 25%. U.S. Copyright Law does not assume anything other than a pro rata even split. Of course, if we can get her to sign an agreement that her interest is only 25%, then that contract will be enforceable. It might be worth a try - I'm always shocked by what people will sign.

I hope this information is helpful. Best regards...

Eric Applebaum
Fein, Emond, & Applebaum, P.C.

My client did not like that result.

But the woman who wrote the lyrics was probably more unhappy. She was trying to stop my client from releasing the song. In the United States, once a Joint Work is created, one writer can NOT stop any other writer from commercializing the work.

There is an one on-line copyright service which does an excellent job registering jointly created songs. The banner below will take you to their site: