Friday, October 2, 2009

More on Hip Hop Songwriting Copyright

Hi! Here's a letter from a music publisher reader!
Dear Rich: Regarding yesterday's entry I think it's a mistake to say that "if the beatmaker's contribution is mostly percussive, you can probably register the song" and that "traditionally the people who create the lyrics, melody, and chord changes, are the ones who claim the song copyright" not only because these lines are so gray in the hip hop world, but because-- depending on the "best copy" of the work registered with the copyright office -- many more nuances can in fact be copyrighted. There is a convention among my hip hop clients that affords the beatmaker 50% of a song (and whether that is a copyright equity interest or simply a revenue-sharing interest is a matter of potential debate). But the bottom line is that, as a music publisher, I skip ahead right to: "Everything is negotiable, so get it in writing asap," because otherwise I find I simply reinforce confusion. The short answer is that you're right and thanks for the comments. The Dear Rich Staff welcomes practical real-world commentary since -- due to our fear of germs, loud noises, and contrary opinions -- we rarely get out much anymore. 
The New Paradigm. In a sense the relationship of an MC and Beatmaker harks back to the early days of pop songwriting -- for example, the days of Rodgers and Hart --  when one person contributed lyrics and the other supplied the rest (we can even see a female rapper putting Larry Hart's lyrics to beats). Recognizing that collaboration and the acceptance of the hip hop tracks as songs, our advice does seem old-school. Instead, we agree that both the MC and Beatmaker be considered as equal collaborators (and treat that as a starting point in the negotiations). Most importantly, we concur about getting it in writing or as they say in the music biz, 'get paper.' 
Copyright vs. Revenue Share. One other clarification -- as you note there is a difference between a revenue share and registering a copyright. As for copyright registration, the Copyright Office requires that the song be registered listing the actual authors -- those who contributed to the writing. So it would be an error to list someone who did not make a songwriting contribution as an author. (For example, Elvis Presley's "contribution" to Heartbreak Hotel was apparently that he was able to pressure the songwriters into giving him a cut.)  A revenue share, unlike the copyright registration, can be any arrangement that the copyright owners agree upon for compensation. So instead of listing Elvis as a co-author of Heartbreak Hotel, he should have been listed as an assignee of one-third of the revenue (or some other arrangement that guaranteed him the money). In summary, even if the beatmaking does not amount to an old-school songwriting contribution, it can amount to a new-school revenue share.