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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 when it comes to the business and legal end, they could use some tips from experts. There are many legal issues that arise, such as how to split up the royalties and who gets credit for songs. Use the songwriter tips in this article to guide you through the sometimes convoluted business and legal side of the music industry.

Agree on Songwriter Credits Immediately

Among songwriter tips, an important one is regarding songwriter credits. When you are co-writing music, be sure to specify how revenues and credits will be sorted out, as soon as you finish the songwriting. If you don't do this right away, you could find yourself arguing about how to split credits and revenue with people you don't work with anymore. This could take some time and may cause delays. Be sure to 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 that is already earning money, owns its own equipment, and has a working career, you should consider using a band partnership agreement.

How to Split Songwriting Credits

Less known among songwriter tips is how to split songwriting credit. If you contributed in any way to a song's structure, chord progressions, or lyrics, you are given a copyright to that song. Even if you only contribute to a section 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 or the contact information of your music publisher. Encode these names and copyright information into the text tags of your songs, as you prepare them for downloading.

Copyright is Automatic

Registering songs with the U.S. Copyright Office is unnecessary to secure your copyright. As long as your song is original, meaning it is yours and was not copied from some other source, and fixed, meaning it exists in some hardcopy form (like on sheet music, a tape, or on a computer), your song is copyrighted. You should still register your song to help protect it from copyright infringement. Having your copyright registered will help you in any infringement cases so long as you register it before any infringements or within three months of the song's release. Registering may enable you to recover more money damages in an infringement case.

Transferring your Copyright

The news is full of horror stories about songwriters giving up their copyright to their songs and suffering severely for it. People often give songwriters tips about not signing over their copyrights. However, whenever you sign with a major music publisher, you give up the copyright of the song to the publisher. Keep in mind that this is a transaction. In return, the songwriter receives a large portion of the royalties and often earns the bigger share from the publisher's work. So, do not be afraid to sign away your copyright to a music publisher as long as you are receiving something in return. It is best to have an attorney review the deal for you, to ensure your best interests.

Consider Sampling Old Music of a Dead Songwriter

Many people are familiar with Elvis Presley's hit song, "Love Me Tender." The tune for this song was actually taken from an old civil war song "Aura Lee," and original lyrics were added to the tune. The songwriters of "Love Me Tender" were able to sample "Aura Lee" because it was so old. Any music published before 1923 is considered public domain and is free for anyone to copy. Using this older music allows you to avoid having to pay royalties, get permission from a copyright owner, or give credit to the songwriter of the original song. Once you have used an old song, others may use those same tunes, but not 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 monitor media such as radio stations, nightclubs, and websites and collect royalties from those that use your song. They pay these royalties directly to the music publishers and songwriters. Broadcast Music, Inc. and the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers are the most common performance rights organizations. Be sure to register with either of them and keep your information updated. Visit their websites:

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, and now, even CDs are not the way to go. Market your music in ways that will open up licensing opportunities for you. Consider using

  • video games,
  • advertising agencies,
  • motion pictures,
  • TV companies, and
  • Internet websites.

Consider Using a Publisher, Despite Lower Revenue

Songwriters who publish on their own, instead of using a publishing company, receive 100% of the revenue. If you use a music publisher, the publisher gets part of your earnings, and you will probably receive between 60-75% of the revenue. It may seem smart to go without a music publisher. The reality is that established music publishers are better connected and able to book you lucrative deals and give you more publicity than if you were on your own. It is best to sacrifice the revenue percentage for more successful exposure.

Work from Home Tax Break

If a portion of your home is used only for composing and recording your songs, and you have no other fixed locale you work from, you can claim a home office tax deduction. The amount you are allowed to claim is directly proportional to the percentage of your home you are using. For example, if you are using 20% of your home as an office, you can claim 20% of your home office expenses. These expenses include rent, mortgage interest, property taxes, utilities, homeowners insurance, etc. If you use this deduction, once you sell your home, you lose the capital gains tax exemption on the home office part of the home. You can avoid this by living in your home for two of the five years preceding the sale of your home.

Next Steps
Contact a qualified business attorney to help you identify
how to best protect your business' intellectual property.
(e.g., Chicago, IL or 60611)

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