What Rights Do You Have As a Song Co-Writer?

song co-writer

If you are a song co-writer, you have certain rights. But so does the other song co-writer. What rights do each of you have in the co-written song? Can you make further changes to the song without the co-writer’s consent, or sign off on the use of that song in film or television? Can you record a version of that song with musicians other than the co-writer? Can you release a recording of that song on iTunes or YouTube?

As we’ll see here, the answers aren’t as simple as one might think. As an entertainment lawyer, song co-writer disputes are one of the most common issues in the music industry.

Here are the key principles of co-writing that I’ve summarized and drawn from years of experience, to make it a touch easier on you.

1)  There are always 2 copyrights in a recorded song, no matter how many Co-Writers are involved.

As we examined in detail here, there are two distinct copyrights in each piece of recorded music: one in the musical work or composition, and one in the sound recording of that composition. Within those two types of copyright, there are typically three parties that have control of the copyright: the writer, the performer, and the producer (known as the “maker” under the Copyright Act). The writer has copyright in the musical work, while the performer and producer are often granted a copyright in the sound recording. If the songwriter is also the performer on the sound recording, they are granted rights in both the musical work and the sound recording.

song co-writer

2) When More Than One Co-Writer is Involved, a Joint Work is Created.

When more than one song co-writer creates a composition, it is considered a joint work under the law. This means it is a “work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.” A song acquires copyright protection when it is “fixed in any tangible medium of expression from which it can be perceived, reproduced”.

In other words, when you create lyrics or music, intending that someday they will be part of a song, your creation becomes part of a joint work when it is recorded on tape or written on a lead sheet along with someone else’s lyrics or music. Even though your individual contribution might have been separately protected under copyright law and suitable for copyright registration on its own, the song that results from the merging of the individual contributions of the songwriters is then granted copyright protection in its joint form.

song co-writer

3) Song Co-Writers each own undivided, equal interests in the whole song.

Unless you agree to some other division of ownership and income participation with your song co-writer, you will each own an equal share of the song (i.e. one-third each if three writers, one-quarter each if four, etc.). These fractional interests apply to the entire song, and separate lyrical and musical ownership rights to jointly created songs do not exist without a written agreement among the songwriters. In other words, it will be difficult in the future to separate the lyrics from the melody from the music, if you find yourself in a conflict with your song co-writer. You will both simply own half of the entire song.

4) Contributions to a joint work cannot be separated.

Without the consent of the other song co-writer involved, one writer can’t simply remove another co-writer’s contribution and get a new collaborator to replace it, because the original song co-writer will still own an equal share of the original composition, and that composition cannot be changed without that owner’s consent. The ownership share of the original collaborator may not be reduced by the addition of new writers without consent.

song co-writer

5) Each Song Co-Writer can grant non-exclusive licenses without the consent of the other co-writers.

Non-exclusive licenses are permissions for the use of a song that are not exclusively transferred to the party receiving the license. For example, most synchronization licenses for the use of a song in a motion picture or television program are nonexclusive, because the owner of the copyright usually reserves the right to license the use of the song to some other television or motion picture producer.

 6) No Song Co-Writer may assign an exclusive right to a song without the consent of the other writers.

No song co-writer can deal with the publishing rights (that is, the ownership and administration rights) of the other songwriters. It is quite common for one song co-writer to assign his/her share of general music publishing rights, giving a particular publisher the same fractional interest in the entire song that the songwriter possessed before transferring the music publishing rights. For example, if you own 50% of the composition, you can transfer that 50% to a publisher in a publishing deal, but cannot transfer any portion of the remaining 50% that belongs to the other writer.

Other exclusive transfers of rights to the entire song are also forbidden. For example, no single collaborator can grant to a print music company the exclusive right to print sheet music of the song or grant to a sub-publisher in Italy the exclusive administration rights to the Composition throughout Europe.

7) All Song Co-Writers have a legal duty to account to each other for any monies earned from any use or exploitation of the song. 

In its most basic sense, this just means each writer has to pay the others their equal share of monies received, but the “receiving” writer should also provide information about the source of the monies and a copy of any accounting statement received by that writer along with the payment.

8)  Each Song Co-Writer also has a legal duty to give credit to the other writers wherever a printed or visual credit appears for any of the writers.

This would include on album inserts, iTunes, YouTube, in film credits, etc.


It is crucially important to sign a Co-Writer Agreement anytime songwriting occurs with more than one writer. Film producers will drop a song from being used in their production if a clear line of ownership cannot be established. If no Co-Writing Agreement can be shown, the producer will simply move on to the next song. The same can be said about songs being considered for advertisements (Apple has ‘made’ several careers), video games, etc.

The agreement itself is quite affordable, and will open doors for you for years to come. Contact me today to discuss further, and to discuss your favourite Eagles vocal.

song co-writer

21 thoughts on “What Rights Do You Have As a Song Co-Writer?

  1. That’s a very interesting article as I’ve had a little dispute with my co/writer. He wrote the lyrics, I wrote the music. He’s saying he can use the music in any way he likes without the consent of me. He’s decided he wants to create a charity cd and collecting all the songs and collaborations in one place but he’s not letting me have any input into the performance on the CD. He’s also asking other musicians to play on the CD. From a legal point of view is he allowed to do this. I have a signed a co-writer agreement we both signed. I’m
    Just feeling like I don’t trust him as I’m not sure what he’s doing to the songs as I work abroad. I just want to be prepared. If you can help that would be great.

  2. Hi Kurt,

    My co-writer of a tune we did in 1998 has infringed on our song and my half of the copyright. She got another writer to change the melody and kept 70% of the lyrics. From everything I’ve read it’s a blatant copyright violation. I’m told two things constitute it. The original writers heard the original tune and a substance amount of the tune was copied. She refuses to answer my email. I know she’s receiving them because her new co-writer answered me and basically said screw off. (He CC: her on email) They both take credit online for the new version. I’ve had it removed everywhere but soundclick.com….they’re playing games. Said they can’t find the copyright on Library of congress site . (Sound cloud found it! I can bring it up)
    I have an artist interested in the original version. I’m in the USA. Can I get a non-exclusive contract without her consent? In the USA???? I see you’re in Canada. This artist would probably take a non exclusive contract….she’s a friend. Not sure her manager will let her but….

    I’m definitely her nightmare these days. I told her…takes a lifetime to build a reputation and 5 minutes to destroy it…..I’m writing everyone! Pisses me off because I offered to negotiate and her co-writer spit at me. She never answered.

  3. Hi Kurt,

    If I wrote a song with a guy but he said he doesn’t want any ownership of it, do I need to get that in writing or can I just register the copyright under my name as the sole owner of the song?

  4. Hi Kurt, Very clearly explained. Thank you
    I have a question perhaps similar to that of David Dove above, but on the other side.
    A singer composes lyrics for a instrumental number a musician had already created. They jointly record that song with the lyrics and each release a copy on their respective youtube channels (no money earnt)
    Subsequently the singer wants to professionally record/release the song with different musicians on an album he is releasing with other songs/covers for sale.
    The musician and co-owner of the song wont give consent for the recording/release of the song. The singer is proposing to give credit and rights to 50% royalty. It may be that the co-composer wants to have input into the release or possibly be the musician.
    Does the singer need consent of the musician/composer in the work for which he has written lyrics?
    The singer is going to drop the song from the release as does not want any unpleasantness. However, it would be good to know the answer.

    Thank you

  5. I have a business partner friend who is a lead singer and Co writer on a lot of albums for a famous band. Mostly European tours and he is the only American. He has not gotten paid on live performances, Co writing royalties, streaming. The other members are getting checks. This is a GEMA deal. He has not been registered with a PRO in the USA. Any advise would be appreciated. Thank you.

    • Sounds like he needs a US or German lawyer to track down some revenue that is owed to him. He should be registered with a PRO as well.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  6. Thanks for the article Kurt, great info!

    I do have a question about joint works though.

    Concerning the case of That’s a Plenty, composed by Lew Pollack, recorded and published in 1914.
    Pollack died in 1946.
    In 1949, a recording of That’s a Plenty was made and published with lyrics written by Ray Gilbert.

    Can you speak of a joint work in this case?
    Or are the lyrics copyrighted separately from the musical composition, the composition having fallen into the public domain by now (since it’s been published before 1923), whereas the lyrics are still under copyright protection?

    Thanks a lot for clarification!


  7. Hi Kurt. I have a situation with a co-writer. Your article has been very informative. I have not been able to collect my publishing royalties for some time now. The song continues to be re-cut and performed. There was a sub Publishing agreement in place But now there company claims it never existed.

  8. Hello Mr. Kurt Dahi, my question is about songs I’ve written and received contracts for the… I will like to know when they change some of my words, do they now become co writer’s even though they said I will own 100% of my song and the music they produced for the song? This is a letter I’d send to the president of the company! Is it written in the way it should be… By the way I will be needing a entertainment attorney in the very near future and would like to get the chance to see if you will represent me in the near future?

    Dear Mr. Ronnie James, 

    My name is Larry Perry, Sr. and I am writing in regard to my contracts I’ve received. First, I will like to give thank to Songwriter,s Music Group, for choosing my songs to record… After carefully looking them over I noticed some areas of concern…
    I understand by signing the contract I will own 100% of my song, is this correct?
    Now by Songwriter’s Music Group changing some wording to my song, wouldn’t that make Songwriter,s Music Group Co/writer’s?
    And if so what percentage will Songwriter’s Music Group own of my song’s? How will you figure out the percentage?
    Lastly, how come and why do Songwriter’s Group give $50,000 in a bonus? So it doesn’t say in the contract that Songwriter’s Group will be part owner of my song once the words has been altered!

    This is of the up most impotence to know these things before I can sign on the dotted line…

    I will like to think Songwriter,s in advance for addressing my concerns!

    Your truly,
    Larry Perry, Sr.

  9. i have a situtation where a relationship between my band and a ghost co writer has turned sour and he now says he is not giving permission for any of the songs he co wrote to be released by us – is he allowed to stop us from releasing or is the fact that he wrote songs with us knowing we would release them one day enough?

    • Hi David. Without something in writing from the outside writer, unfortunately he would indeed be able to stop you from using the compositions. Email me for further assistance and we can see about having the ghost writer sign off on something. Thanks

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  10. Hi Kurt,
    Great article!
    I’m in a situation where I have written and recorded piano tracks to go along with a few songs (consisting of vocals, guitar and piano) on someone’s upcoming album and I’m not sure whether they think I was doing it pro bono or not (should’ve probably discussed it earlier!). I’m meeting them in a couple of weeks to discuss things further and I’m wondering what the best form of copyright to get would be? Having a 50/50 split seems harsh since they wrote the song and recorded vocals and guitar but I want some sort of recognition for my writing and some financial benefit.

    Any advice would be appreciated, thanks a lot!

    • Hi Martin. I would have to hear the song before and after your contribution, but suffice to say that you should talk with them about what % of the composition is yours, and what both sides feel is fair.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  11. I have a song I co wrote with two other people. We wrote this song for my upcoming EP. The recorded version is done but not released. It will most likely be released within the next 2 months thru a record label. One of the co writers have asked to perform this song at his Gigs. I know he’s a co writer of the song, but will this mess up my chance to release my produced version of it thru a record label?

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