As seen from our last L4M post, success in the music industry is often dependent upon the people around you; managers, lawyers, and booking agents make up your “team”. But what about those other musicians that help you create the sound? The artist’s you work with to make a song. Collaborations are so common these days even bands with numerous members are bringing in teams of producers, a second percussionist or guitarist, and additional vocalists. So why does it matter? You work with your friends to create great music, right? Its true, but defining roles and ownership is essential in protecting your music. Some of the biggest disputes in the industry today involve payments to collaborators, the rightful ownership to a song involving guest musicians and artists.
Take for example the dispute between Jack Urbont and Sony Music Entertainment over the theme song for Iron Man. (Urbont v. Sony Music Ent., 100 F.Supp.3d 342 (2015)). Sony released a song by hip-hop artist, Ghost Face Killah, which used a portion of the Iron Man theme song and only received permission from Marvel Television but not Urbont. The main issue being when Urbont worked on the original theme song with Marvel was whether his contribution was considered a work for hire or should he own part of the composition with Marvel. The parties ended up settling out of court after Sony was granted the right to use a work for hire defense against Urbont. So what’s the takeaway? You need to decide prior to releasing any music whether your bestie is taking a fee, getting any rights to the composition or both.
“Work for hire” is a legal term in the copyright act that in a nutshell means you are being paid for your services as a musician but will not own any of the intellectual property to the song. Think of it as any service you pay for, if a carpenter makes you an original table, you pay him or her for the workmanship and the table, but the carpenter doesn’t receive ownership in the table and doesn’t receive a portion of the funds when you resell it. Same for a work for hire musician or vocalist. Work for hires are the most common when the musician doesn’t create anything original, they are just playing or singing what you put in front of them. However, work for hires are becoming more and more common with writers, musicians and producers who contribute original material to the song. Why would they do that? First because you give them a big paycheck and second because they don’t think the song will make more money then the paycheck, it’s a win-win for them.
On the other hand, if you are a songwriter and you ask your friend the guitar player to come in and write the melody, it makes more sense to split the ownership of the composition. This is when you want a guest artist agreement in place so that you won’t have to track down the guitar player every time you receive a license request or want to make a remix. What if you want to use part of that melody in another part of a song? You will need to ask the guitar player for permission and he or she can argue that they want their ownership percentage to stay the same even though your using only a portion of the melody. A guest artist agreement will prevent this headache as you can outline each individual’s rights and permissions involved with the song.
Sometimes artists will collaborate and give both a fee and ownership over the composition. In this case, the fee is treated as an advance that needs to be recouped against profits. Think of it as paying the artist upfront for what you think they will make off of the sale of the song in the future. Until the song recoups the advance amount they won’t receive payment from a label or you, even though they own rights to the composition.
So how do you ensure that all of this is done correctly? Unfortunately, a handshake will not suffice. A legal document signed by both of you will be necessary. Lots of writers and producers use session sheets to delegate publishing splits, but this doesn’t clarify who can do what with the copyright and definitely doesn’t help you in a work for hire situation. Having a lawyer draft this for you is the safest bet, but the good news is that often you can reuse work for hire agreements by changing the name and the fee instead of paying for a new document every time (don’t tell your lawyer I said that). The most important thing is to read the agreement and make sure you understand it!! Ask questions, do your research, and know what rights you have or are giving up. Just make sure that on the day you hit number one you’re not scrambling to get your former bestie to sign a work for hire agreement.
by Lauren Schulz (firstname.lastname@example.org)