Doing the Splits: How to Calculate Your Songwriting Splits

By Pete Bott



Working out songwriting splits can be a contentious issue, especially when the line between writing and production is blurred. It’s therefore essential to discuss splits at the outset of any collaboration project to avoid disputes at a later date.

If you look at the writing credits for songs in any mainstream or specialist charts, you will see that we are living in an age of increasing musical collaboration. While this collaborative spirit is to be celebrated, it is not without its complications, particularly  when  it  comes  to  songwriting  splits  and resulting income. Fundamental questions arise: if you write the main musical riff and the rest of the band add simple accompanying parts do you all still take an equal split? If you write the lyrics, are you automatically entitled to fifty percent? Where does songwriting stop and production begin? How do you resolve disputes?

Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA)

The relevant UK law is found in the CDPA. Under the CDPA, a song will usually consist of two separate “works”:

i) the musical work and ii) the literary work (in relation to any lyrics). In most cases, the author of a work is the first owner of any copyright in it. A work is deemed to be jointly-authored where it is produced by the collaboration of two or more authors in which the contribution of each author is not distinct from that of the other(s).


Blurred Lines Over Ownership

This lack of clarity is exacerbated by the increasingly blurred boundary between the roles of songwriters and producers. In the past, these roles were usually well-defined. The Beatles’ producer George Martin is acknowledged as making a significant contribution to the Beatles’ songs, but he is not credited as the author and has no ownership of them. These days, especially in production-led genres of music, the roles are far  less clear and it may be difficult  to determine whether the programming of sounds or rhythms constitutes authorship and therefore ownership.

It would be logical, however, to assume that if you identified the authors of works in a song, you could determine the appropriate ownership splits. Unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward. This is because:

  1. the musical and literary works do not necessarily each constitute an equal fifty percent share of the whole of the song;
  2. the contributions of joint authors may also be unequal. A further complication is the commercial pressure which may be operating in the background. A high-profile artist may, for example, insist on an ownership split on a song despite having little or no involvement in the writing process. Elvis Presley was well-known for this practice.

As a result, while the starting point in determining splits   is usually to apportion each co-writer’s contribution (musical or lyrical) to the song as a whole, an agreement is usually reached following commercial negotiation. This means that well-known writers may insist on a larger split, especially if that writer increases the chances of the song being successful. >>


Agree Your Splits and Avoid Falling Out

The solution is therefore to discuss splits and reach an agreement between all co-writers, ideally before the writing process begins and certainly before any money or other deals are on the table. Be warned: if you don’t do this, disputes will almost inevitably follow! If you cannot agree exact splits in advance then you should at least establish a mechanism for calculating and recording splits once the songs are finished.

All of this may seem complicated and you might be tempted to put-off discussing co-writing splits, particularly when the creative  process is going well.

You should also agree:

  • Who controls the use of  the  songs  (for  example, do all co-writers need to agree to the grant of a synch licence?).
  • Who will register the songs with PR.
  • Who will receive income from exploitation of the songs.
  • How liabilities will be dealt with (for example, a liability may arise for all co-writers if the contribution of one co-writer infringes the rights of a third party).

It is also sensible to nip any ego conflicts in the bud by setting out an agreed form of writing credit to be included in physical packaging and digital metadata – remember that these may not be the same as the splits, especially in the case of ghost writing.


Consider Publisher Arrangements

In addition, you must consider how co-writing arrangements might be affected by contracts with publishers. If any of the co-writers have signed an exclusive publishing contract then it is likely that their ownership in the songs will be automatically transferred to their publisher. You should therefore check that any such contracts will not prevent or restrict you from using the co-written songs as intended.


Get Your House in Order at the Start

All of this may seem complicated and you might be tempted to put-off discussing co-writing splits, particularly when the creative process is going well. However, you can be certain that any awkwardness in talking business at  the outset will be amplified substantially if you delay and money comes into the equation. Legal costs will stack up in resolving any dispute and a window of opportunity for use of the songs could be missed.

You should therefore do all that you can to agree matters in advance, get your agreement down in writing and check how your agreement may be affected by any relevant publishing contracts. You simply cannot rely on the CDPA or “standard” arrangements to accurately reflect your own specific co-writing relationship. If you get your house in order in this way, you will minimise the risks of a dispute and be able to concentrate on enjoying the creative possibilities offered by collaboration.


Pete Bott

Music Specialist Solicitor, Swan Turton LLP 0207 520 9587

By Pete Bott

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