In songwriting, as in any creative endeavor, there’s a delicate balance between art and commerce. While writing songs is, at its core, an act of artistic expression, it also marks the creation of what attorneys refer to as “intellectual property.” So, given that there is property ownership involved, the questions on the table are how important is it to document that relationship and at what stage of the creative game should it be done? Specifically, when it comes to co-writing, it means what percentage of the copyright will be attributed to each collaborator.
I should begin by say, that I don’t – nor do any songwriters in Nashville that I’m aware of – use legal split sheets as a way to document my co-writes. Not only that but I was taught by example in Nashville that any songwriter in the writing room when the song is being written is entitled to an equal share of the copyright of the resulting song. This means that whatever contribution a songwriter makes on a given day during a co-write is an essential – and equally valued – part of the creation of that song and so the split percentages are also equal. Without those writers in that room on that day, the song wouldn’t be the song that it is. I’m fully aware that this isn’t the unwritten rule in cities/countries outside of Nashville but I like what it represents and have chosen throughout my career to take this approach.
No matter whether you will be establishing percentages with an official document such as the split sheet or not, it’s essential that you consider the steps below to make sure that the issue of song ownership and percentages is discussed.
Ideally in advance of a co-writing session, it’s worth everyone’s while to have a discussion among collaborators about how you will approach percentages when it comes to your co-write. Whether it’s an even split – like the Nashville example above – or an agreed upon split based, for example, on how much of a completed song one writer brings to the session, this discussion can go a long way towards avoiding misunderstandings later on.
In the absence of an official spit sheet, registering your finished song with your respective PROs (i.e. BMI, ASCAP, SESAC) will officially document the percentages of the song attributed to each songwriter involved. This is a simple – and free – way to legally establish each writer’s ownership of the song.
Another thing to remember, beyond the percentages of each writer, is that all writers are responsible for sharing expenses when it comes to demoing your finished song. Not only that but the more work all the writers do to pitch and promote the song, the greater the likelihood that something good will happen with your shared creation.
The collaborative process has yielded some of the world’s greatest and most enduring songs. It’s important to remember that you are responsible for not only the creation of a great song but also for the business side of your collaboration as well. Being up front, clear and generous in your approach is a great place to start.