Copyright, Co-Writing, and How to Split The Difference So Everyone Wins!

For when you and your friends write that really GOOD song...

By: Deeann D. Mathews 23 Nov | 2016


So picture this... two friends who are musicians are sitting around in a room with a piano, and a guitar, and some notebooks, just #jamming. And then, one of them comes up with a nice riff. The other one picks up a notebook and starts adding some words. A song is born!

(This, of course, is the whole reason you are here on Aballoon... working together to create great music together. But let's say you discover one or two people you want to write with on a long-term basis – keep reading on how to do that well)

So now, our two songwriters are sitting together talking about the incredible journey they and their song have had, when there is a knock on the door.

Hello, good songwriters. This is your royalty delivery!”

And the armored truck drivers come in and start piling up stack after stack after stack after stack of $100 bills.

Now, in a perfect world, the two songwriters, who have been friends for years, would figure out how many #stacks there are, divide them equally, and then go out to celebrate.

But, this isn't a perfect world. More songwriting teams and bands have split over the question of how to divide the royalties than any other question. The challenge comes when the money arrives and suddenly, people start thinking about how much their portion of the song contributed to the song being a hit. “Well, it wasn't for the hook I wrote to the song, people wouldn't listen to it again and again – I ought to get more!” “Well, if it wasn't for my bass guitar riff, this song would have been boring – I ought to get more!” And on it goes in the real world. In the end, the record companies keep the money they have already made, the lawyers get most of the rest, and the songwriters and bands end up broken up, brokenhearted, and quite often, just plain broke.

Worse still, the Copyright Office in the United States can't help you with this one. Even if all the songwriters on a particular song are properly registered as the creators of the song, United States law only allows for WHOLE owners, not part owners. That is, each co-writer owns as much of the song as another... which basically puts you right back in the situation where two, three, or more people are all sitting up with each one trying to justify getting all of the royalties of a particular song.

Would you like to miss that particular drama with anyone you really enjoy writing with? It only requires one piece of paper, and it is absolutely free.

When you do your co-writing, just get ahead of potential problems by writing what is called a split letter. That is, take a piece of paper, and have everybody working on a song with you sit down and agree on how much of the song they own, and then sign it. If you have time, type it up so it looks good and official, and include signature lines for everyone – after all, this is an agreement between all the co-writers involved. If you have a little money to spend, maybe even have the letter notarized. Make copies for all the other songwriters.

How do you split up a song? Just for easy mathematics: if you have one co-writer, a 50/50 split is a good place to start. Three writers? How about one-third for each? Four writers? How about 25 percent for each? Five writers? How about 20 percent for each? Now, depending on how the song actually is, these percentage splits may not work exactly. But if you start on the basis of equal division, no one will feel cheated, and you are more likely to have everybody working equally hard to co-promote the song so that everybody gets paid. Even if you work out some other percentage, the point is to have it agreed on and signed off on by everybody BEFORE the song becomes a hit and money starts to flow.


Deeann D. Mathews is a composer, songwriter, and music teacher living in San Francisco, and also the author of The Freedom Guide for Music Creators – click the link, and get her book on Amazon!


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