Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Drummer as Songwriter

Dear Rich: My husband is a professional drummer who was recently and unceremoniously kicked out of a band. The band is preparing to release their first album this month. Four of the songs on the album were joint authorship collaborations, to which my husband contributed original and distinctive percussion parts as well as overall musical arrangements. The other two members of the band had verbally agreed to share authorship credit (with copyright and ASCAP registration). We have an email from one of the band members agreeing to their 40-40-20 split (with my husband receiving the 20% share). Unfortunately, the album had to be pressed in a hurry and nothing was officially registered (although, there were countless promises to do so upon returning to the U.S.) As a surprise to us, rather than give him credit on the four songs, they instead dismissed him from the band. Now the band has plans to perform and sell the album and has made it clear they intend to dishonor their earlier agreement. What rights does my husband have? Can we proactively register the copyright? And, can we send the band a cease and desist letter as to the four songs in question? What should we demand in the letter? Before filing any applications or sending  any letters you will need to sort out two issues: (1) who are the co-authors of the songs, and (2) what deal, if any, was reached among the parties. 
Who is a Co-Author?
Lets say that the other members registered the songs and did not list your husband as songwriter. If your husband challenges the registrations, a court will be concerned primarily with whether the percussion parts and arrangements actually amounted to a contribution that merits co-author status. According to the Dear Rich staff, courts have not always looked favorably on percussion parts and arrangements as compositional contributions particularly when they are "dictated solely by musical convention or tradition." (Cf. In this case, an arrangement by Billy Strayhorn merited copyright protection). If your husband is convinced that he is a co-author, he can file a copyright application listing the appropriate information. (Here's a video we made that explains the process) But keep in mind that filing a copyright application with false information -- no matter who does it -- may lead to a claim of fraud on the Copyright Office
What's the Deal?
If the band members agreed that your husband deserves a 20% portion of the revenue from those songs, he is entitled to it, regardless of the claim of authorship. But your husband will need to prove that an enforceable agreement was reached among the parties. The verbal agreement may suffice though it is will be difficult to prove and may prove difficult to enforce for other reasons. Written documentation of the agreement (including emails) would be best but its hard to tell what proof is proper unless an attorney reviews the documentation.  (PS we recognize that this is not a laughing matter, but a segment of our staff insists on linking to drummer jokes!)