Does my producer own part of my song?

March 8, 2011

Dear Music Lawyer,

I have been doing some professional recordings with a producer friend an we co-wrote some music. Now I need to bring up the subject of what’s what and who owns what, but I don't really know all the questions to ask or what you can own.

Is there an agreement for a co-written song that you suggest? I brought two songs to the table that I wanted to work on together, and we came out with quite a different product. He helped with arrangement, lyrics, producing, mixing, and mastering. I have music friends urging me to make sure I talk about this stuff with him, but I would like some advice from you.


Dear Iris,

I definitely think you should get some things down in writing with your producer/co-writer friend, especially if you're planning to sell the recordings and/or license the songs embodied in the recordings. Lots of times producers get a cut of sales of the recordings. Producers who are arguably writers of the songs as well can also be entitled to a cut of publishing monies.

The first thing I would do is make sure you're clear on who owns the song. Perhaps he's not expecting a share of the copyright in the song. Even a simple sheet of paper you each sign saying that you own 80% of the song and he owns 20% (or whatever you agree on; obviously it's better for you if he owns little to nothing in the song). If you truly had a complete song and lyrics before entering the studio, I would try really hard not to give away any percentage of your song copyright.

You also want to make sure you're on the same page about who owns the recordings and what happens to monies from their sales/licensing. There are lots of different deals you can do with producers. Most of the time, the band owns the recordings with only a duty to pay the producer either (a) flat fee for his/her services; (b) royalties or percentage of net profits if the recordings sell; or (c) flat fee upfront PLUS royalties/percentage of net profits on the backend. However, I have seen some deals where the producer and band co-own the masters (or are deemed to co-own because they can both be viewed as authors/creators of the copyrightable work). The common problems with co-ownership arise when the co-owners don't have the same plans for the work that is co-owned. You don't want to be in a position where you are unable to use the recordings you made because he objects to the use for some reason.

So, all that said, if you don't have any kind of agreement with him about the songs or the recordings, your friends are right that you should talk with him and get your agreement down in writing. To prepare, think about what your goals are. Are you wanting to release these tracks on an upcoming CD (or even just digitally)?

What do you think would be fair compensation to him for his services (or did you already pay him for studio time/production services)? What services specifically do you think he provided? What credit does he deserve in your mind?

Do you think of yourself as the 100% owner of the song, or do you really feel like he wrote part of the song, too?

Do you want him to have a say in how you exploit the songs/recordings?

Once you've answered a few questions for yourself, I think you'll be prepared to talk to him. But, from my standpoint as an artist lawyer, I generally like to see the artist retaining ownership of songs and recordings with only a duty to account to the producer (and promote him through a producer credit).

Hope that helps!

—Amy E. Mitchell is maintained by experienced Austin music lawyer Amy E. Mitchell. Please feel free to ask any music law related questions. You will be notified by email when your question has been selected for response, and the response will be posted on this site.

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