Songwriting, to me, is where it all starts – and where it all could fail. Unfortunately, though, songwriting (and production) seem to be only about 10-20% of the overall success equation in music. Nonetheless, songwriting needs to be on point, and many musicians often seek to collaborate on songwriting to help that process. However, many writers make unnecessary mistakes that cause heartache and legal troubles by not taking some simple steps on the front end of the creative process.
Harmony has written her first song entitled “Nice Acoustics.” She wrote both the music and the lyrics to the song in her bedroom one night. She is very excited about the song, and immediately records a video performing it on her webcam. Before she posts her video on YouTube, she visits fellow acoustic artist Six String Ben, and plays the song for him. Six String Ben is very impressed, but suggests that Harmony slightly change the melody of the bridge. They both like the subtle change, and Harmony agrees that she’ll play it that way.
A week later, Harmony is out at her favorite local music venue “The Scrounge Lounge” and to her surprise Six String Ben is performing her song “Nice Acoustics!” She is excited at first, and then, after he finishes the song to a warm applause, he announces that “Nice Acoustics” is a song that he wrote. Over the next month, “Nice Acoustics” becomes a popular song in the area, and one that many fans request to hear at Six String Ben’s shows. He starts booking bigger gigs, becomes known and associated with the song, and even starts to get some non-commercial radio airplay. His booking rate and merchandise sales have increased since he began performing the song, which he openly claims is solely his work.
What should Harmony have done when she first wrote her song and recorded the video? What should Harmony have done when she decided to collaborate with Six String Ben? What are Harmony’s options now that Six String Ben is claiming ownership of “Nice Acoustics?” Does it matter that Harmony still has not posted her video on YouTube? Does Six String Ben have any rights to the song?
Harmony’s rights to the music and lyrics of “Nice Acoustics,” and to the sound recording she made of it, arose when she scribbled or typed the music and lyrics down and when she recorded her webcam video – whether she published it yet or not (on YouTube or otherwise). So, luckily for Harmony, Six String Ben is going to have a difficult time proving his ownership of the song. However, Harmony should register her copyright claims online with the U.S. government, so that she creates evidence of her ownership and a right to sue in federal court to protect it.
Harmony should have established a written understanding with Six String Ben before she sat down to collaborate with him that his minor edits would not constitute any ownership in the song. If she sought greater collaboration from Six String Ben, they could have agreed on the ownership split upfront for a new song, and filed a new copyright. The copyright law assumes that collaborators share the ownership equally absent a written agreement to the contrary; so it’s always important to agree on splits in case you don’t want to deal with a claim of equal splits. Six String Ben’s contribution of slightly changing the melody of the bridge would likely appear as “de minimis” under the law, and thus not worthy of a partial ownership claim. However, absent a clear writing from the start, Harmony now has to deal with Six String Ben’s ownership claim and potentially litigate her rights, which can be costly.
For Harmony, a few minutes online reading and filing her copyright (and maybe getting some help from her legal- or business-minded friends), and a little open communication with Six String Ben from the start, likely could have avoided her entire dilemma. Next time, Harmony will know how to protect the foundation of her music career better, and free up her time and stress to be the artist!
DISCLAIMER: The information provided herein is for informational and entertainment purposes only, and the names and stories are not based on real events or persons – they are made up! Nothing herein shall be construed as a legal opinion or advice as to any particular state or federal law, or laws of a non-U.S. jurisdiction, or to any specific situation or case.
Welcome to The Musician’s Hypothetical. I’m SJ, an acoustic singer-songwriter based in South Florida. I followed an untraditional path that led me to music. In July 2009, I decided to leave behind a career as a corporate attorney not only to pursue the writing and recording of my original music, but also to understand the changing music industry, to approach it with some business sensibility, and to create a way to share this knowledge and experience with other musicians and industry professionals.
The shift from lawyer to musician and music business professional is not complete, as my legal mind is always at work, and the path to music success as an artist is a long road. Law school education taught me to think and approach situations in a very critical way using what is called the “Socratic Method.” That method stimulates inquiry and debate based on posing questions that encourage critical thinking and the discovery of new ideas and, often, more questions to get to the true “heart” of the matter and make better decisions.
The Musician’s Hypothetical applies the Socratic Method by presenting fictional scenarios in music, which could be inspired by a situation that I’ve experienced, heard about, read about, or simply just imagined. I’ll present these hypothetical situations followed by a question/answer format that examines different ways to approach it. My aim is to do it in an entertaining but useful way, and certainly not to bore anyone in the business with overly legalistic analysis.
My wish is that this blog becomes a trusted forum for musicians and industry professionals that expands minds with more insight into the business. In today’s DIY music industry, knowledge is power more than ever before. My hope is that talented and serious musicians out there can get a “leg up” so to speak as they approach different situations on their way to “breaking” themselves into the limelight.
This blog isn’t about marketing, or how to file a copyright, or another “how to” blog or publication. It is about critical thinking and common sense being applied to everyday situations musicians and their professionals face. It’s intended to be conversational. In my opinion, those two aspects – critical thinking and common sense decision making – are hardly addressed in today’s flurry of DIY musician publications. So this is my contribution!
Thanks for stopping by and check back soon for the first “hypothetical” conversation!
Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to be nor shall be taken under any circumstances as legal advice, and is not intended to be advertising for any legal services by SJ or anyone affiliated with him, Acoustic Soul Group, or their affiliates. This blog is for informational and discussion purposes only. If you require specific advice about your specific situation or matter, contact a qualified attorney in your area.
I’m very excited to be sharing with you my blog concept long in my mind…The Musician’s Hypothetical. Here, I hope to share a lot of information and receive thoughts from my fellow musicians, music business professinals and fans. More to come very soon…! Stay tuned! Thanks.
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