Jerry Leiber, a lyricist from Baltimore, teamed up with Mike Stoller, a music composer from Long Island, in the 1950’s to write such hit songs as “Hound Dog” for “Big Mama” Thornton, later immortalized by Elvis Presley, and “Yakety Yak” for The Coasters.

Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were a husband and wife songwriting team remembered for their country and pop tunes recorded by many famous artists such as The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly.

Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann are songwriters who have collaborated to write many tunes including “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” for The Crystals, “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” recorded by Eydie Gorme, and “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’” with Phil Spector, for The Righteous Brothers.

Trivia: What else do all of these songwriters have in common? The answer is at the end of this article.

Behind the music, each of these songwriting teams is made up of collaborators whose songs are deemed jointly created works under U.S. copyright laws. A joint work is created when two or more authors intend to merge their original contributions into a single work. The authors then become co-owners of a copyright in that joint work.

Back in the day, songs that were played on the radio typically were composed by one or more songwriters whose sole job it was to write hits for artists to record.

Over time, more and more artists began writing their own songs, sometimes in collaboration with people who made their living behind the scenes. For example, “Stand by Your Man” was written by Tammy Wynette, who sang the song, and her producer, Billy Sherrill.

Today, songwriting credits are often split among many people, some of whom may have provided the track, the lyrics or the melody, as well as band members who may have simply been in the room when the song was created adding vocal arrangements or a keyboard riff. For example, the #1 hit for Katy Perry in 2014, “Dark Horse,” was co-written by Ms. Perry, her guest vocalist, Juicy J., and four other writers.

Establishing splits among joint authors is important primarily because a song has the potential to earn royalties for many years after it is written, and royalty checks will be dispersed among those credited with having written the song.

Mechanical royalties have to be paid by record companies to songwriters and their music publishers for the right to distribute a song on CDs and through digital downloads. Public performance royalties are collected by BMI, ASCAP or SESAC and distributed to songwriters and their publishing companies when songs are played on the radio, streamed over the Internet, or performed in clubs or at concerts. Songwriters and publishers also receive large fees from synchronization licenses when their songs are used in films, television shows or commercials.

The failure of joint songwriters to enter into an agreement when a song is first written defining their rights and obligations can lead to real problems down the road. For example, if a band that has been together for several years decides to break up, the songs they have written constitute a valuable asset that will need to be divided among the members. The lead singer may feel that she wrote 100% of all the songs, but others in the band may have a different viewpoint if they made contributions to the music.

It is far better to have an agreement in place ahead of time than to try to negotiate one when money is on the table and nerves are frayed.

Some bands will take the position that regardless of who contributed what to the creation of a song, all of the members own it in equal shares. Other bands may recognize that one member is primarily the songwriter, and that her share of each song is greater than the shares of the other members. In many cases, the band will reach an agreement with respect to each song when it is created, establishing splits among the members based upon their contributions.

However, if there is no agreement between the individuals who claim to be the authors, or owners, of the copyright, general copyright law will govern ownership disputes. Litigation may be necessary to determine whether a song is a “joint work” and if so, who the joint authors are.

Resolution will depend on the facts and circumstances surrounding creation of the song. Did each person claiming ownership contribute an independently copyrightable element to the work, or was the contribution merely a non-copyrightable idea? Did the individuals intend to merge their contributions into a single work, or did the lyricist write words for an instrumental track that had been composed months before?

Although many artists do not like to attend to the business side of the music industry, an agreement between the joint authors of musical compositions is very important to avoid disputes. The agreement should address the following issues, at a minimum:

  • Who is entitled to joint ownership of a song and in what proportionate share?
  • How will the songs be registered in the U.S. Copyright Office?
  • Who will be responsible for registering them?
  • Will each songwriter be permitted to exploit the jointly owned song, or will one of the authors be designated as having the sole administrative responsibility for exploiting it?
  • Under what circumstances will unanimous consent to a particular use of a song be required, and when can the administrator act alone?
  • How will the expenses of exploiting a song be divided among the collaborators?
  • What restrictions, if any, should there be on transferring an interest in a song to another party, such as to an heir when a co-owner dies or to a spouse when there is a divorce?

If joint songwriters do not reach consensus on these issues before disputes arise, the result may be the destruction of friendships and costly litigation.

We are glad to meet with songwriting partners to help work through these issues. Please contact Frank Morgan for more information at 410-783-3524 or fmorgan@agtlawyers.com.

Answer to the trivia question: Each of these songwriting teams wrote at least one song that was covered by The Beatles.