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Oddity of US Copyright Law: Once it’s Ours it’s Not Just Yours Again


This post is going to focus on a peculiar nuance of the US intellectual property law that songwriters and producers should be aware of.

Obviously as this post is concerned with intellectual property copyright law it will only really be valid in the United States. More and more people are collaborating on music these days with the addition of easily swappable digital files. The problem is that when people come together to merge things that they have created into a new composition, those components are subsumed by the new composition. That is, they cannot be separated and used again for other new compositions as entirely separate creations.

Take, for example, a lyricist and a musician decide to create a song. The lyricist writes some lyrics and the musician creates a guitar part. They record it or perform it and have a falling out a couple weeks later. The lyricist decides that his lyrics are better used in a different song, so he uses them in a collaboration with a different musician. Technically speaking, he can’t do that. As with anything having to do with law, it boils down to who cares the most – ie., is the first musician (or his label) going to take the time to press the matter legally? This seldom happens, but it’s important to be aware of the fact that once different creative elements are combined they take on a life of their own.

And it applies to just music, too. Musicians collaborating are also creating a new composition.

This odd reality is a result of the law that saws that copyrights are granted the moment a composition is performed or documented. You don’t actually have to send the composition into the Library of Congress in order to have a copyright. The moment it’s performed or documented it exists in the eyes of the law.

So be careful to whom and to what you decide to commit your best material. Treat it as the asset that it is. Also, establish a clear understanding of who owns what portions of a composition when setting out to create something with others. It’s in everyone’s best interest to have these things clearly communicated, rather than leaving it up to ambiguity that can ruin the relationship and the work in the future. Don’t worry about offending people by bringing up business right off-the-bat – it’s a sign of professionalism and is something that you’ll find in common with seasoned pros the world over.