Who wrote the song?

There are two specific forms of copyright: ownership of a song and ownership of a recording. In the last article, you can see why the former is more important than the later. But what does it mean to own (copyright) a song?

Bernie Taupin (lyrics)/Elton John (music)
Bernie Taupin (lyrics)/Elton John (music)
In the good old days, song ownership was a 50/50 split. If you wrote the words, you owned 50% and if you wrote the melody you owned 50%. If you wrote both you were in for 100%. “Melody was King,” as those old-timers used to say.

A strong song can stand alone with just words and melody. When you ask someone how a song goes, they don’t generally do an air guitar or keyboard impression – they’ll more frequently belt out the chorus..and maybe some verse. It’s also fairly easy to understand why the other instrumentation is not ultimately critical to the nature of a song…

Drums, especially, are an accessory to most songs. The very same song could be played with full kit, congas, cajon, or castinettes. And most drummers are an amalgam of the patterns (fills) they’ve learned from their teachers and influences.

The same could be said of any other lead instrument. These are nice embellishments but not necessities. Sure, sometimes there is a signature riff or “hook,”. But the simple test is, could you imagine the song if the hook wasn’t there ? What if the song was recorded without the riff?

Guitars are a good example here. Many lead guitarists play off of the song’s melody line to create their part. Many more simply riff away in the key of the song, emphasizing a particular mode or modes (along with a host of techniques learned over their lifetime). But just how much creativity should be awarded to knocking out a pentatonic scale?

And then there is the old adage: “Good guitar players borrow. Great ones steal.” All musicians have been influenced by their idols of the past, and so it takes a great bit of effort to create that part that constitutes “original.” Further, if a song is sold to a more accomplished artist in the music industry, more often than not that artist will want a blank slate – no extra instrumental, just the basic words and melody.

One distinction that should be considered here is, if a musician creates the music bed, they are ultimately instrumental (of course, pun intended) in writing the heart of a song. It would be wise to give them some song writing credits and thus some copyright ownership for such a major contribution. A good rule of thumb is, if the music came first, the music inspired the song.

But if you open band mates up to a mass ownership scenario, a whole lot of ambiguities can arise. What if the band breaks up? What if the lyricist moves on? What if the former bassist doesn’t want the song to survive, out of spite alone? What if the Xylophonist broke out his pen and added two words to a verse? Enter the band agreement…

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