Understanding Copyright in Music Collaborations

Why Is It Important?

Every music maker creates something unique with their work. In times of social media and other digital distribution channels we need proper tools to protect the things we created against misuse.

The dilemma is there for everyone to see: in order to make my music known I have to make it publicly accessible somewhere. By making it available, I also give others the opportunity to replicate my work. Even if I reduce my audio sample's quality, idea, composition and text are still accessible to everyone without loss.

Fortunately, there are fundamental rights for every creator of a musical work. In theory, these are even valid without the author's involvement. Nevertheless, it is useful to know the matter well, especially when working together with other musicians or authors - perhaps even on an international level. Here the rules are anything but trivial, if they exist at all. We want to help you to get an overview of best practices, the legal situation and the technical terms used, so that you don't run the risk of losing the fruits of your labor.

There Is Nothing Like "The Copyright"

One should not mistakenly give the raw term "Copyright" more meaning than it actually deserves - it is rather an abstract term. A statement like "I own the copyright for this work" may be correct, but not sufficient. In music marketing, a distinction is made between two types of copyright, Songwriting Copyright and Sound Recording Copyright.

A distinction may seem irrelevant to you as soon as you write, record and produce a song on your own. However, depending on your musical ambitions, other parties may enter the marketing process of your song sooner or later. Even more important is the differentiation between the two types of copyright, if you already collaborate with one or more people in the creation phase of a song.

International Copyright

Before we start looking at the different types of copyright, let's see what it is basically about:

  • Copyright prevents people from copying, distributing, lending, performing or adapting your work without permission.
  • Explicit Copyright laws can vary by country.
  • Copyright is governed by the laws of the country where the author seeks protection.

The following explanations refer to international standards, but may differ in details from the laws of your country.

The Songwriting Copyright

Whenever you write a song - even if it's just a text - you automatically obtain the Songwriting Copyright. The only requirement is that your idea is materialized in some form, e.g. as a text file, printout or audio recording.

What if two of you are working on one song? For example, you wrote lyrics, which your friend then turns into a melody on the guitar.

In this case both of you own the Songwriting Copyright, because you have created a so-called Joint Work. As a result, for example, your co-author cannot act without your consent when it comes to granting others rights of use to your work.

The Sound Recording Copyright

Once your song is recorded, Sound Recording Copyright comes into play. This right is granted to everyone who has been involved in the recording process from a creative or technical point of view, usually musicians, sound engineers or producers.

Consequently, there is an important difference to the Songwriting Copyright concept. A complete re-recording of the work does not require the consent of the owner of a sound recording copyright, because their rights refer only to that recording. However, they have a say in everything concerning the recording, its distribution, spreading etc.. That's why the Sound Recording Copyright is often transferred to a record label through contractual agreements.


The fact that you have the copyright ownership of a work gives you control over who can use it and how. In order to standardize this process, usually licenses are granted. A license describes the scope to which the licensee may use a work.

For collaborations in the public digital space, it is almost essential to work with licenses. Without them, no one would be able to contribute to your work without being theoretically liable to prosecution. Even if the motto often is: "No plaintiff, no judge", one should not always rely on everybody's common sense. At the latest, when a work of art should become a great commercial success, goodwill is often a thing of the past.

Collaborating on Songlift

The subject of copyright is of course much more complex in detail than we can outline in this article. If you want to know more about this topic, we recommend these pages about Going For a Song.

Whenever you upload your music to Songlift, you are on the safe side, because we care a lot about your privacy. You can always decide yourself who can access which of your files and how. Our primary concern is to create an environment in which you can concentrate on the music. However, in case of any disputes, we expect them to be resolved by mutual agreement in the first place. Should this not be possible, Songlift will of course always be there for support.