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Imagine releasing a song you just wrote - and it suddenly blows up.

Your streams are in the millions and you’re preparing to enjoy your new life of celebrity and the riches that come with it - so long as you haven’t blindly signed your rights away, at least. Soon, the figures in your bank account will be higher than they’ve ever been - the future is looking very good indeed.

And then, a songwriter you occasionally collaborate with accuses you of stealing your hit song from them. Now that it’s making serious money, they’ve decided they own half of it.  You’re perplexed. All they did was suggest one lyric change when you casually played your songwriter demo to them. True, you did use their one line of lyrics and said you’d “take care of them if the song ever makes money,” but you were thinking of taking them out to dinner, maybe buying them some small gift to thank them for their suggestion, certainly not giving them half your song - or anything even close to it. Like, seriously.  

But now that your song has taken off, this collaborator is suddenly demanding 50% of it. You tell them to forget it, maybe you’ll give them 5% of the publishing, and even that feels overly generous. But nope, they insist on 50% ownership and nothing less will suffice.

The next thing you know they’ve taken you to court over the dispute. And guess what happens? The court agrees with your co-writer and mandates a default 50-50 split of the ownership of your song’s composition copyright. You just lost half your song, half your publishing royalties to this schmuck for his one line of lyrics in the third verse of your hit. Worse, you’ve also doled out all this money in legal expenses to try and protect your interests in this dispute. Pretty unfair, huh?  

But this is exactly what can happen when you don’t have song split agreements in place with your co-writers. In the above situation, had you immediately signed a written agreement together stating that your “co-writer” was entitled to a 5% ownership share in the song’s composition copyright - and nothing else - it would have changed everything.  

Because without a song split agreement stating otherwise, by law, ownership of a song’s composition copyright is divided equally among all its writers. Regardless if they only contributed one line to the third verse, they’re legally entitled to as much of the song as you are - even though you wrote all the music and 99.5% of the lyrics. No wonder you’re so-called “co-writer” sued you; they’re going to be collecting a lot of money for that one fortuitous line of lyrics they offered you.  

See why having solid song split agreements in place with your co-writers is so important?  

But even if talking with your co-writers and hammering out ownership percentages of the music you just created is the last thing you feel like doing, you must do it.  You must come to terms and have the song split agreements for your songs finalized.

Think about this. You have a song called “X” and you believe that you wrote half of it with another songwriter. Then you sign a publishing deal which includes the song called “X” and it turns out that your co-writer of that song thinks your ownership should only be 10%. Now what? Try licensing that song. You’re probably in breach of your publishing agreement and forget about telling your publisher what your split is on a new song. They aren’t going to trust you. They will want to see the signed split agreement for all of your songs.

You want them to pitch synch opportunities for the new song? Forget it, they are going to pitch songs that come from just as good of writers who have their splits agreed on. Same thing with synch agents, their clients, or any record label thinking about releasing your co-written material.  It’s just good business to have your song’s ownership splits agreed upon in writing before your start making money with those songs.

All the more reason to come to an agreement with your co-writers on ownership rights as soon as possible (ideally at the end of your writing session).

No Set Formula for Songwriter Split Sheets

Simply put, Song Split Agreements are contracts that list a composition’s writers and their percentage of ownership in its copyright, as agreed upon by all its writers. There’s no “official” formula saying that a chorus is worth 20%, a bridge 10%, or anything like that, although most writers agree that the lyrics are worth 50% of a song and the music the other 50%. How that gets divided up when multiple co-writers are involved in a song is up to the writers themselves

But not only is getting copyright ownership shares down in stone important, these agreements also confirm which writer, or writers, will get to administer the song, another crucial component which we’ll get to in a minute.

Song split agreements are essential because having these things clarified in a written contract is always better than a simple handshake or verbal agreement. With a proper song split agreement in place there’s not likely to be any ownership disputes later on. Everything is down in writing, every writer has agreed to the deal and signed the document. Case closed. Or rather, never opened in the first place.

Sure, it might feel awkward at the end of a productive writing session to sit down with your collaborators and decide who wrote what and how much of the copyright their contribution is worth, but far better to do it right away, get it on paper (or more likely, digitally), and be done with it. Nobody can come back later claiming they own more of the song than they do when a signed song split agreement is on the table.

Administration Rights in a Song Split Agreement

Now, let’s talk a little about administration. Unless stated otherwise in a song split agreement (sometimes called a split sheet, or song split sheet agreement) a song’s administration rights are also divided equally. In practice, that means anytime you want to commercially exploit the co-written song, say, do a sync license deal with it, you’ll first need each writer’s written approval for that use. That might be fine, depending on the situation. But let’s say you have a deal on the table that needs to be signed immediately, as is often the case, but you can’t locate one of your co-writers. Maybe it's for a song you wrote 10 years ago and one of your co-writers has died? Who inherited their copyrights? Where are they? How can you reach them? Meanwhile, your sync agreement is on hold while the film’s producers are getting sick of how much time it’s taking you to close this relatively simple deal. So instead, they opt to go with another song. Trying to land your song is simply more hassle than it's worth. You lose. Goodbye sync deal and the opportunities and exposure that might’ve come from it.

That’s an extreme example, I know, but it's definitely not uncommon - especially when you have multiple writers owning a song. That could be a producer, drum programmer, synth programmer, or the artist recording the song, if that’s not you. In this day and age, you can find yourself with a lot of co-writers on a song, and that can make administration complicated. So to avoid this sort of thing, typically, the most prudent thing to do is to assign a co-written song’s administration rights to one writer; particularly if that writer is also the recording artist releasing the song.  So, when commercial opportunities for that song arise, you don’t have to chase down half a dozen co-writers for their signatures and can just proceed with the deal. Everyone still gets the same amount of money for these deals, but only one writer negotiates and signs them on everyone’s behalf.  

Music Business 101

Fortunately, even as important as they are, understanding song split agreements isn’t all that difficult. They aren’t especially complicated. That said, beware of bogus sample song split agreements you download online. Some are much better - and more comprehensive - than others. I recommend going to Creative to look for a sample song split agreement on their platform and learn a little more about them there. Their Creative Intell Academy online music business training actually has an entire course devoted to these agreements, and it comes with a perfectly drafted, downloadable song split agreement you can edit and use for your own purposes.

Creative Intell Academy is actually one of the best deals on the internet. Not only do you get a heap of music business training courses for half the price of just one course at, say, Berklee or elsewhere, but their contract-specific courses come with sample agreements like the song split contract we’ve been talking about. And their sample agreements are drafted by some of the top entertainment lawyers in the business. Look ‘em up if you want.

Having a solid songwriting agreement that clearly splits the royalties and clarifies the administration of your song is Music Business 101 stuff, but it’s still often overlooked by artists, and results in a lot of inequitable royalty payments. In other words, whenever you co-write with anyone - your bandmates, best friend, mother - you would be well advised to bring a few blank song split agreements to your writing session and have everyone agree to their ownership percentages right then and there, decide who gets the administration responsibilities, and put it all down in writing. It could very well save you a lot of heartbreak - not to mention friendships with your co-writers - if one of your songs starts generating boatloads of money.

Oh, and btw, I get asked this a lot these days and I don’t know why, but let me set the record straight once and for all: no, there is no such thing as a song and sound recording split agreement. Simply doesn’t exist. As we’ve seen, there are song split agreements, and there are also some recording and partnership agreements that might go into ownership percentages of certain sound recordings, but compositions and recordings are two different animals, with different copyrights and revenue streams. There is simply no combined song and sound recording split agreement. Makes no sense.  So now you know.

Esha Alwani
Post by Esha Alwani
Esha Alwani is an indie songwriter/recording artist and educational designer at Creative Intell. She is currently studying entertainment law.