From the Mailbag: Co-Writing and Works for Hire

Great question in today’s inbox… a reader wanted to know what to do about a song that was co-written with a session player:

Here’s the letter…

I’m sorta having a prob with some pros about a beautiful song that I wrote about 20 yrs ago. I brought it out of the closet in 2003 and introduced it to a professional jazz pianist. I told him if he would help add a little to it that I would share writership with him to the song.

Well when the time came for me to go to the studio for us to chart the song I didn’t have the foggiest idea what the new part was going to be. I ask him what am I to sing? How do I know what to say? He said, “Just do what feels natural for the song.

He charts the song to the way I wrote the first 2 1/2 min. I set up in the sound rm. and sing the first part beautifully and he begins the addition with a couple of new measures slightly different in tempo to the original first part (I liked it) I begin to sing. Amazing at that moment he begin following me with the piano throughout the rest of the song. The words that I had stored in my brain while I was originally writing the song, (you know the ones you weed out?) were freely coming to mind and rolling off my tongue. I paid this pro pianist for his work that day. He walked out of the studio with my song and money.

Well every time since then that I ask this “pro” about our song, he would just pass it or change the subject. For two years I continued to use this musician for hire in the studio work. I often needed him to chart my songs.

Recently, I called him and asked him, “When are we going to finished getting things copyrighted on that song of ours?

Of course, he asks, “What song?. I told him. He says, “I wrote the most of that thing”. I told him that he did not and here I am now.

I do have friends with musical careers that know the song is mine.

What’s my next step? Especially when another issue has evolved from this pro too. I thought I saw him charting a song for himself while he was charting my project.

He got mad when I started asking questions. He hung up on me.

This is a (sadly) common tale. It looks like all you’re trying to do is establish the co-writing credit that you offered in the first place. It’s only incumbent on one of you to do so, so you can freely submit your song to the Library of Congress and to your Performing Rights Organization under both of your names. (I don’t see you disputing the co-write status here.)

If he has gone on to register the song under his name only, you will need to get an attorney.

To avoid this kind of situation, I advise clients to get signed “Work for Hire” agreements from session musicians or other collaborators before any recording session. Show what kind of compensation they will get for their contributions — you could grant co-writer status, or you could simply state that all work created during the session is automatically owned by you. Either way, the point is to clearly state in writing what the outcome will be.

If the session musician doesn’t like the agreement… find another session musician. Which brings us to point number two…

I often see folks tolerating bad behavior by musicians (especially friends) because they’re more afraid of finding a replacement than correcting the behavior. If you’re paying someone by the hour, or if someone’s supposed to be working on your project during studio time you’re paying for, you deserve to get their full attention. If not, plenty of folks who read this weblog would love to take their place.

Good luck with your next project!