Who Owns the Copyrights to Your Band’s Songs?

Christian bands need to decide who owns the copyrights to the bands songs to avoid conflicts within the band.

In the first post of this series, Copywrite or Copyright?, we learned that copyrights exist automatically as soon as an original song is “fixed”. We also learned exactly what those rights encompass. So, now that we know what the rights are and what we need to do to get them, we need to know who can get the copyrights to your bands songs.

I have asked the question, “Who owns the copyrights to your bands songs?” to many different bands over the years. Here are some of the answers I have received. See if you can spot which could be true and which are definitely false.

    • The lead singer because they sing the words and melody line most often on stage
    • The record label because they told us they did
    • The band member that wrote the lyrics
    • The studio that recorded the songs
    • Whoever pays to have the song recorded
    • Whoever copyrights the song first
    • The guitar player because they wrote the most parts of the music
    • The whole band
    • The whole band except the drummer because they don’t play notes
    • Whoever did the most work on the song
    • My parents because I’m under 18
    • My parents because they pay the bands expenses
    • I don’t know, our manager was supposed to do that

So what is the correct answer?

Copyrights are owned by the person or people who wrote the song. These rights can be transferred to whomever the songwriter(s) assign the copyrights (though a written contract – this is how labels can get copyrights). That sounds pretty straightforward doesn’t it? But, this involves the government and the legal system – so, of course it is not quite as easy as it appears. There are ifs, ands, and buts.

Let’s start by defining who actually wrote the song.

Songs are most often made up of both lyrics and music. In copyright law one is not more important than the other. The lyrics and the music combined together are considered to be “the song” and share the same copyrights. If one person wrote both the lyrics and the melody line that person owns the copyrights.

Collaboration occurs when more than one person participates in writing a song. The person that wrote the lyrics does not own the copyrights alone. Likewise, the person that wrote the melody line does not own the copyrights alone. Everyone that participated in writing the song can have a share of the rights to the song. Most bands write songs in collaboration.

So, let’s use a couple real life examples:

Say Abbey, a songwriter, singer, guitarist, sits down with her guitar one day and writes the lyrics and the melody to a new song. It is pretty clear cut that Abbey is the only person who can claim the copyrights to that song. Abbeys band can perform the song, but the copyrights can be claimed solely by Abbey.

But now let’s say Abbeys friend, Oscar, stops by while she is writing the lyrics. Oscar grabs Abbeys guitar and comes up with a really sweet melody. Abbey likes Oscar’s melody, so they agree to use her lyrics with his melody. Now they have written a song in collaboration and both have a share in the copyrights. Abbeys band can still perform the song (even if Oscar is not in the band) as long as Abbey and Oscar both give their permission.

But what if Oscar never stopped by and Abbey brings her lyrics to band practice; then the band helps to write the music. Essentially Abbey has written 50% of the song (lyrics) and the other 3 guys in the band have written the other 50% (music). Who owns the rights, since Abbey has clearly done most of the work? This is how most band songs are written – one person comes up with the primary creative idea – an awesome guitar riff, or great lyrics etc. and the band comes up with the rest.

There are 3 ways to split copyrights in a band:

      • Do nothing. In this case the legal entity of your band is governed by individual State Law. These laws vary widely, but most often your band will either be considered a hobby or a partnership. Who owns what percentage of the copyrights can get pretty messy but most often will be divided equally among band members unless it is challenged. If your band is just a hobby, and you do not intend to sell your songs, this arrangement is probably fine. But, I do not recommend this way for any band that is serious about staying together as a music ministry.
      • The legal entity of the band owns all copyrights. No one individual member holds any copyrights. The best way to accomplish this is to specify this arrangement in the partnership agreement between band members. When the band holds all the copyrights individual members can leave or join without affecting the payment of royalties. All royalties are sent to the bands legal address and divided or spent in accordance with the terms of the partnership agreement.
      • The individual members split the rights to each song according to how much they contributed to the collaborative effort. Using the above example, Abbey might get 50% because she wrote the lyrics, the guitarist from the band might get 30% because he came up with a huge portion of the melody line, the bass player and drummer might split the remaining 20% for their help. If you opt to use this way of dividing copyrights, you should allocate who gets what percent as each song is written. (Yes, write it down.)

Although the last method seems at first to be more fair, many bands do not use it. The disadvantages are:

      • Extra paperwork in keeping track of who wrote what
      • Possible disagreements as to how much each person contributed
      • Keeping track of former band members’ contributions and receiving their permission to use songs they contributed to writing
      • The person that contributes the most to songwriting feeling that they control the band

Many bands acknowledge that while some members contribute more to songwriting, other members contribute more in other areas such as website design, booking, merchandise table management etc.  These bands do not feel it is fair to potentially pay songwriters higher royalties but not pay the other members for their contributions. The songs would not have been performed or recorded (indeed the band would not exist) without everyone’s participation in the work. I personally agree with this way of looking at things (if all band members are sharing the workload equally) because it seems to line up with the teaching of all of us working together as a body:

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by[c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

 15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12: 12-27 NIV

No, I do not believe everyone should get paid the same for whatever they do in life. But certainly as a music ministry we need to value each others contributions to the band. Your band will have to figure out how that works best for you. Whatever you do, it is best to set your egos aside and agree on what you are going to do before you do it.

Lastly, let’s address the issue of minors claiming copyrights… the Federal Government does allow this. Minors do not have to give their rights to their parents or guardians; they can of course transfer the rights to them. But, individual State Governments vary their laws. If you are in a position of selling a song as a minor, be sure to consult an attorney and tax advisor. They will provide you with options and the best way to handle potential future income.

So now, go back to the answers I have heard when asking the question, “Who owns the copyrights to your bands songs?” and see what you think. Have your answers changed? Yes? Great! You have learned something new today!

Be sure to read the next post in this series: The Poor Man’s Copyright. It will help debunk a popular myth.

Does your band need more in depth help with copyrights? This is the book to get:

Music Copyright Law

It is written by lawyers that teach classes in music copyright law. But the lawer-speak has been kept to a minimum. Everything is explained in layman’s terms so we can all understand the concepts.

Do you want to register the copyrights for your Christian bands music, but feel uncomfortable doing it yourself? Check out LegalZoom. They have on-line step by step forms you can fill out to walk you through the process.

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