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Who Owns The Music?

Legal Eagles

By Brian K. Carvell, Esq. Published August 2008

Inevitably, I am contacted a few times a month with a question that goes something like, “My band broke up and my guitar player joined another band, and I think he is going to play one of the songs we wrote together at their next gig … can I stop him?”

In a situation like this, the answer is, “No, you cannot stop the guitar player from performing the song.” Worse yet, if the band is being paid for the gig, you aren’t entitled to be compensation, even though you helped write the tune. The reason you don’t get paid is because the song was co-authored by you and your ex-bandmate, he has just as much ownership of the music as you do, and has just as much of a right to perform the song live as you do. That is why Vince Neil can do Mötley Crüe songs live; Stephen Pearcy can perform Ratt songs live; and so on. (Can you tell I’m an ’80s metal fan?)

Now, the actual recording of the co-authored song is a different story. If that same ex-bandmate tried to sell copies of the song the two of you recorded, then you would have legal grounds for an injunction prohibiting the sale. Both co-owners of the song would have the right to license the recorded song on a non-exclusive basis, provided that both parties are paid their share of the profits from licensing the song. However, permission must be granted from all people who have ownership rights in the copyright before the song can be released for licensing. So if permission is not granted by all co-authors of the song, then this would be your legal grounds to halt the release.

Some Native American cultures have a very holistic view of property ownership. They might ask, “Who can own a song?” Leave it to the modern American jurisprudence system to answer this question for us.

Not intended as legal advice. If you have a specific legal concern, please contact an attorney.

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