Can I register the copyrights if artist didn't pay for my producer services?
October 9, 2012
Dear Music Lawyer,
I am a producer/audio engineer who has produced, recorded, and mixed 28 songs for an artist as well as wrote 6 choruses. He has not paid me for any of my services and plans on cutting me out of the picture to release the songs on his own. If I file for the SR copyright first and just credit him as the performer, am I technically the owner of the recordings and need not worry if he does try to release them and profit from my music and services? Should I register the copyrights in the songs as well?
Registering the copyrights in your name with the Copyright Office will create a legal presumption of ownership and validity (assuming registration within five years of first publication). However, copyright registration does not prove ownership of copyright and the artist could try to disprove your ownership.
Bear in mind that when completing the copyright application, you must certify that the information you have provided is true and correct. Based on your question, it sounds like you wish to register the copyrights in only your name not because you believe that you own 100% of the songs and recordings, but because you believe that you have been wronged by the artist because he failed to pay you. Whether or not an artist pays you for your services does not legally have a bearing on copyright ownership. Pursuant to the U.S. Copyright Act, copyright ownership initially vests in the original author(s) unless the work qualifies as a work made for hire. You may, however, have a breach of contract claim for artist's failure to pay. (Yes, oral contracts can be enforced, although disputes over oral contracts often devolve into he said/she said.)
Nevertheless, a record producer may well have a claim of ownership in the masters (most likely co-ownership) unless he/she signed a written agreement to the contrary. I would anticipate having a harder time claiming co-ownership of the songs if the artist entered the studio with the lyrics and melodies completed (as opposed to composing songs in studio, which could more easily result in joint works). It depends on whether the producer contributed something sufficiently creative and original to receive copyright protection. (Note: Since you said you wrote 6 choruses, it sounds like those songs were still being composed in studio, which would give you a stronger claim.)
That said, many producers do negotiate a publishing interest and, when I work for artists in producer contract negotiations, I always push for language that clarifies whether the producer has any copyright interest in the musical compositions that are being recorded. Ideally, you would agree to the actual song/publishing splits for each song in writing before leaving the studio to avoid disputes down the road.
Amy E. Mitchell