The Consequences of Collaboration

We’re sometimes approached by artists who have undertaken a project with collaborators that have been asked to help the artist achieve their vision. However, the collaborators hadn’t worked out ahead of time who will own the resulting copyright and plunge into the project, or they have only the loosest agreement. By the time we see them, they’re trying to sort out who owns the resulting rights and may even be in the midst of an acrimonious dispute. The good news is that many ownership disputes can easily be avoided by having a written agreement in place prior to the project’s start.

A prime example is a musician who has composed a piece and wants to record a demo for purposes of shopping the demo to a record label or the underlying composition to a publisher. As part of that, the musician has sought out an engineer or perhaps other musicians to assist in the recording process.

Will the collaborators have any copyright ownership interest in the composition or resulting sound recording? In the absence of an employee/employer relationship (which will not be addressed here) or agreement to the contrary, the answer could very well be “yes”.

Copyright Law

Would-be authors, regardless of artistic discipline, should be aware of when and how copyrights come into existence. Copyright automatically attaches when a creative work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. That is, the work is no longer just an idea in the author’s head and has been committed to a format viewable by the unaided eye or with the aid of a machine. Nothing additional is required of the author.

Ownership of the copyright is fixed with the author at the same time the work is made. If more than one person contributed to creation of the work, ownership will be held jointly amongst all of the co-creators.

Legal Effects of Collaboration

In the absence of an agreement that states otherwise, any artistic contributions made to either the composition or sound recording by the collaborators would make them co-authors and joint owners of any copyrights to which they’ve contributed. This could be as simple as modifications to the melody or lyrics, the addition of a solo, or production choices made during the recording process.

So what does this mean for our musician/composer? As a co-owner of the demo recording, the collaborators would be free to make use of the materials as they see fit, other than to assign or exclusively license the copyright to another party. Further, if our solo musician plays the demo for a record label and the label decides to re-record the composition, collaborators on the composition would have an interest in the resulting royalties.

Obviously, this would be a disaster for a young solo musician as they’ve lost artistic control of what was originally their work or are splitting royalties with collaborators when they didn’t intend to. So what’s the best way to avoid these worst case scenarios?

Avoiding Co-Ownership

To that end, our musician has a couple of options to maintain ownership from the outset of the project: (1) record the demo by themselves or (2) put in place an agreement with collaborators that all of their contributions are owned by the musician.

To avoid any issues, it’s best to have a written agreement in situations where you want to completely own the final product without question or subject to outside claims. Ideally, any artist preparing to undertake a collaborative project should consult put in place an agreement assuring full ownership of the resulting works.

If an artist has already completed a project with collaborators and no agreement was in place, they should immediately try to sort out issues of ownership. In either case, it’s best to consult with an experienced attorney who can guide the process.



Notice: This post is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice based on a review of individual circumstances. Please contact an attorney regarding your particular legal issues.