Commissioners Beware!

By Brian Taylor Goldstein, Esq.

Dear Law & Disorder:

When a composer/songwriter is commissioned to write a song, who owns the copyright to the song? The commissioner or the writer? And for either party, when the other owns the copyright, what kind of controls and/or royalties does the holder have?

As with just about everything in the arts and entertainment industry, these are issues that should be negotiated between the parties. As there are no industry standards (I know I say that a lot, but its worth repeating…there are NO industry standards!), everything is up for grabs in terms of royalties, controls, ownership, etc.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for the parties either not to have a commissioning agreement or for one party merely to “assume” that commissioning a work automatically conveys certain rights. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the absence of a written agreement, copyright law determines ownership and, in such cases, the law is quite simple: the mere act of payment does not convey any rights or ownership. The only exception would be if an employee is paid to create or write something for their employer or if there is a written “work-for-hire” agreement between the parties. Otherwise, the commissioning fee only pays for the artist’s services. Ownership of the underlying work, including all rights, remains with the author.

So, for example, if a commissioner agrees to pay a composer $10,000 to write a concerto, unless there is a specific agreement between the parties that the commission fee includes performance or recording rights, the commissioner is entitled to nothing other than the joy of knowing he or she has paid for beautiful music. If the commissioner also wants to own the song, or record or perform it, then those terms need to be specifically negotiated and agreed to between the parties. This does not necessarily mean that the commissioner is required to pay extra for such rights. Everything is negotiable. It’s perfectly acceptable, and quite common, to include certain performance or recording rights as part of the commission fee. Its also just as common for the composer to be entitled to royalties or other payments in addition to the commission fee. Even in a case where the commission fee includes an assignment of full ownership, the composer can still ask for royalties as well as reserve performance and recordings rights of their own.

In short, all rights must be specified. If you are commissioning music, know what you are paying for. If you are being commissioned, know what you are selling. Never assume!


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The purpose of this blog is to provide general advice and guidance, not legal advice. Please consult with an attorney familiar with your specific circumstances, facts, challenges, medications, psychiatric disorders, past-lives, karmic debt, and anything else that may impact your situation before drawing any conclusions, deciding upon a course of action, sending a nasty email, filing a lawsuit, or doing anything rash!

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