“Nobody writes alone in Nashville.” That might be a slight overstatement, but most musical compositions (or "songs") -- regardless of where written -- are the product of more than one songwriter. Unfortunately, even many career songwriters do not fully understand the legal implications of co-writing.
When two or more writers (or “authors” in copyright parlance) intentionally join forces to create a new song (e.g., during a writing session) the scenario is pretty straightforward. 17 U.S.C. § 201(a) provides that the resulting musical composition is a joint work if, at the time of creation, the authors intend for their contributions to be merged into a single work. Absent a written agreement (e.g., a “split letter”) to the contrary, the authors own the composition collectively as tenants-in-common, with each owning an equal and undivided interest in the entire song. In short, an “undivided interest” means that no author owns exactly what he contributed, but as a joint work, each author owns an equal share of the entire song, unless otherwise agreed in writing.
Each author (or the author’s assignee -- typically a music publisher) may enter into non-exclusive licenses regarding the entire composition, subject to the continuing obligation to account to the other owners for their share of revenue from the commercial exploitation (use) of the work. Labels should obtain a mechanical license from each owner if it is a first use of the composition; however, as a practical matter, most record labels will record the song, and once the copyright owner accepts royalties, it may constitute an implied license. Few people object to having a song cut and being paid.
Determining if a song is a joint work can be trickier if it was created from contributions by authors at different times, instead of during a co-writing session. For instance, if a lyricist writes lyrics and a composer sets those lyrics to music, without the lyricist’s knowledge or intent to create a joint work, the result is not likely a joint work, but rather a derivative work, which raises copyright issues beyond the scope of this article. Most courts require that each author contribute at least enough creative expression to make the contribution protectable under copyright (i.e., not merely an idea or title), and where the contributions are made at different times, there must be an agreement in writing demonstrating the parties’ intent that the contributions were intended to be part of a joint work. Also, although each joint author must contribute some creative element to the final product, each author need not contribute the same amount.
Most professional songwriters adhere to the standard practice of scheduling dedicated co-writing appointments, which limits potential ambiguity over copyright ownership. When ownership of a particular work is questionable because of time or geographic distance between the authors’ contributions, it is best to clarify each author’s intent early and in writing. It's also a good idea not to wait until a song is a hit to work out an agreement, as writers who were friends when writing may become quite disagreeable when money is at stake.
L. Kevin Levine is the founder of L. Kevin Levine, PLLC (go figure), a boutique entertainment, copyright, trademark, and business law firm in Nashville, Tennessee. A lifelong musician who grew up in his family's music store, it was inevitable that Kevin would build his legal career in entertainment and business.