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Songwriter Tips for Copyright, Credit, and Royalties

Songwriters usually know the ins and outs of writing lyrics and composing music, but they might be able to use some tips regarding the music business and copyright law. Many legal issues may arise, such as how to split up royalties, who gets credit for songs, and small business law.

Use these frequently asked questions and tips to guide you through the music industry's intellectual property (IP) issues. Copyrighted works include your songs,  so as a songwriter you should understand copyright law.

Understand How You Get Paid for Your Work

Songwriters' music keeps them paid long after they've written a song, thanks to royalty payments.

Performance royalties are a large revenue stream. Performance royalties consist of two parts: Songwriter Royalties and Publishing Royalties. Music publishers and songwriters receive these royalties directly. A songwriting royalty is a payment that a songwriter earns from the use of their songs. Songwriting royalties can come from mechanical reproductions, digital streaming, public performances, and synchronization licenses.

Synchronization licenses grant another person permission to synchronize a song with visual media. Licenses require payment to the person who holds the copyright or trademark on the song.

Research Royalty Rates

You should research royalty rates and payout structures for different revenue streams. Research the standard royalty rates for public performance, mechanical reproductions, and streaming.

Agree on Songwriter Credits Immediately

When co-writing music, specify how revenues and credits will be sorted as soon as you finish songwriting. If you don't do this right away, you could argue about splitting credits and revenue with people you don't work with anymore. Include any non-writing members you want to share in the income. Although you don't need a formal contract, you do need to put your agreement in writing. If you are in a band already earning money, owning equipment, and have a working career, then consider having a band partnership agreement too.

Know How to Split Songwriting Credits

If you contributed to a song's structure, chord progressions, or lyrics, you have a copyright to that song. Even if you only contribute to part of the song, such as by creating the rhythm section, you have copyright ownership interests. The most straightforward ways to decide who gets songwriter credits are to have the members of the band determine who contributed to the song or decide that every contributor shares equally in the band-written songs.

Publish the Name of Your Songwriters

After you have determined who your songwriters are, publicize their names and contact information. You should also publish your music publisher's contact information. Encode these names and copyright information into the text tags of your songs as you prepare them for downloading too.

Understand That Copyright Protection Is Automatic, but Legal Fees Are Not

Registering songs with the U.S. Copyright Office is unnecessary to secure your copyright. Your music is original, meaning it is yours and was not copied from some other source. It is also fixed, meaning it exists in some hardcopy format like on sheet music, a tape, or on a computer. This means your song has copyright protection under common law.

However, you should still register your song nationally with the U.S. Copyright Office to help protect it from copyright infringement. Having your copyright registered helps you in infringement cases. It allows you to file in federal court, awards you statutory damages, and makes it so no one can claim they didn't know your copyright existed. It may help you recover more money damages like attorney's fees from suing someone in an infringement case.

You receive these Copyright Act protections so long as you register your work before any infringements occur or within three months of the song's release.

Understand the Transfer of Your Copyright

Whenever you sign with a major music publisher, you give up the copyright of the song to the publisher. In return, the songwriter receives a large portion of the royalties. This often earns you a more significant share of the publisher's work. Having an attorney review the deal for you is best to ensure your best interests.

Understand the Public Domain

The public domain includes songs not protected by copyright. These songs can be freely used by everyone. Be aware of copyrighted songs and those that are in the public domain. This article can help you determine whether a work is in the public domain or if you need to ask permission before using it.

Consider Sampling Old Music of a Dead Songwriter

Any music published before 1927 is in the public domain and free to copy. Using this older music allows you to avoid:

  • Paying royalties
  • Getting permission from a copyright owner
  • Needing to give credit to the songwriter of the original song

Once you use an old song, others may use those same tunes too. They cannot copy the unique elements that you added to the old song. If they do, they have infringed upon your copyright.

Register With Performance Rights Organizations

Performance rights organizations (PRO) monitor media such as radio stations, nightclubs, and websites. They collect royalties from those businesses and persons that use your own music. These royalties are performance royalties. Performance royalties consist of two parts: Songwriter Royalties and Publishing Royalties. Music publishers and songwriters receive these royalties directly.

Therefore, it's a good idea to consider registering with such organizations as Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), and the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC) to make sure every play on every playlist is noted and paid for.

What Are Mechanical Royalties for Songwriters?

You earn mechanical royalties when a song is distributed or reproduced through streaming or digital downloads. Organizations usually collect and distribute these royalties.

Be Smart About Marketing Your Songs

Radio used to be the way to get your song heard by the masses. Technology has changed all of this. Market your music in ways that will open up licensing opportunities for you. Consider using:

  • Music streaming services like Spotify, YouTube, or Apple Music
  • Social media and the Internet
  • Video games
  • Advertising agencies
  • Motion pictures
  • T.V. companies

Using a Publisher, Despite Lower Revenue

Songwriters who publish independently instead of using a publishing company receive 100 percent of the royalty collection. If you use a music publisher, the publisher gets part of your earnings. You will probably receive between 60-75 percent. Established music publishers are better connected and can book you more lucrative deals and publicity than if you were alone.

Be Cautious of Work-for-Hire Agreements

Take caution when entering work-for-hire agreements. In work-for-hire agreements, you create songs for others like recording artists. You may not retain exclusive rights like copyright ownership or receive ongoing royalties under these contracts.

Consider the Role of a Record Label

Understand the drawbacks and benefits of signing with a record label. A record label can provide resources to help promote and distribute your music. However, signing with a record label may involve sharing control of your music and collaborating with master recordings.

Protection of Derivative Works

If someone wants to create a remix or new version of your song, they will likely need your permission as the copyright holder if they are profiting from the newly recorded song. Also, if an artist remixes or covers your music and profits from it, they may need to negotiate royalty splits.

Work From Home Tax Break

If you use a portion of your home only for composing and recording your songs, you may claim a home office tax deduction. You cannot have another fixed location where you work. The amount you claim is directly proportional to the percentage of your home you use. As tax laws are constantly in flux, consider consulting with an accountant or a tax attorney to understand your options.

Get Legal Advice About Protecting Your Songs

You may have written a brilliant musical composition, but understanding how music copyrights work is something completely different. Without adequate proof, best secured by copyright registration, someone can come along and claim your musical work as their own. If you're a songwriter, it's a good idea to seek the assistance of a local intellectual property attorney to ensure you get royalty payments. An I.P. attorney can provide guidance on copyright protection and maximizing your royalties.

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