Module 4: Collaboration and Work-for-Hire

Collaboration is the lifeblood of the music industry. Songwriters team up with other songwriters, artists work with producers, and creative partnerships of all kinds drive the creation of incredible music. However, without properly addressing ownership and legal considerations, these collaborations can become a source of conflict. This module focuses on clarifying how copyright law operates in collaborative settings.

Co-Writing Agreements

  • What is it? A co-writing agreement (or 'split sheet') is a simple contract between collaborators in a songwriting session.
  • Why it Matters:
    • Prevents disputes by clearly outlining who wrote what and the agreed-upon ownership percentages.
    • Provides proof of authorship if needed in the future.
  • What to Include:
    • The names of all collaborators.
    • The title of the song.
    • The agreed-upon percentage split for each writer (splits don't have to be equal).
    • Contact information for everyone involved.
    • Signatures of all collaborators.

Key Points About Co-Writing

  • Default is Equal Splits: If there's no agreement in place, copyright law assumes all co-writers contributed equally and share ownership evenly.
  • Negotiation is Key: Splits don't always reflect time spent. They're determined by negotiation. Who had the initial idea, or who wrote the most memorable part, can factor into a higher percentage.
  • Keep it Simple: Early in your career, basic split sheets are fine. More complex scenarios may eventually warrant a lawyer's input.


  • Definition: A special copyright concept where the person or company commissioning the work is considered the "author" and owns all rights, even if they didn't directly create it.
  • When it Applies: To qualify as work-for-hire, it MUST meet two conditions:
    1. The work is created by an employee within the scope of their employment, OR
    2. The work falls under one of the specific categories listed in copyright law and there's a written work-for-hire agreement in place.
  • Categories for Work-for-Hire: Examples include contributions to a larger work (like a film), specifically commissioned musical arrangements, and instructional texts.

Implications of Work-for-Hire for Musicians

  • Loss of Control: With work-for-hire, you forfeit your copyright ownership and potentially ongoing royalties to the person or company who commissioned the work.
  • Negotiation Opportunities: Even in potential work-for-hire situations, you can sometimes negotiate to retain certain rights or earn additional royalties beyond your flat fee.
  • Common Scenarios: Be alert to work-for-hire when:
    • Writing music specifically for a film, TV show, or advertisement.
    • Being hired as a session musician with no expectation of ongoing royalties.
    • Accepting commissioned work where a work-for-hire clause is included in the contract.

Practical Tips for Independent Artists

  • Assume Joint Authorship: Unless a written agreement states otherwise, assume collaborations result in joint authorship with shared copyright ownership.
  • Use Co-writing Agreements: Make them a habit for every songwriting session, even informal ones among friends.
  • Understand 'Work-for-Hire' Triggers: Be aware of situations where work-for-hire might apply so you can make informed decisions.
  • Clarify Expectations Upfront: Before collaborating, discuss goals and expectations for how the work will be used. Get agreements in writing whenever possible.
  • Don't be Afraid to Ask Questions: If you're unsure if something constitutes work-for-hire, consult an attorney or do thorough research.

Special Considerations for Producers

The music producer's role can be multifaceted in collaborations. Here are some additional points to keep in mind:

  • Authorship & Splits: Producers may earn a songwriting split if they contribute significant creative elements to the melody or lyrics.
  • Master Recording Ownership: This is separate from the composition ownership – be sure contracts address who owns the master recording itself.
  • Producer Points: Producers often get a percentage of royalties from the sound recording in addition to upfront fees.

Collaboration is a powerful tool for music creation, but it's crucial to be aware of the legal implications to build productive partnerships and protect your rights as an independent artist.