Why We Wrote This Guide
Lyrics are integral to modern music. Many of the most compelling songs in the world use lyrics to tell a story and relay emotions through music.
Songwriters should know the basic rights associated with the lyrics they create. Music Publishers should know how to monetize these rights through licenses and protect the works of their songwriters. Everyone interested in the music business should gain a better appreciation for the impact and significance of lyrics.
What is a Lyric?
A lyric is any word or phrase in a musical composition. Lyrics spoken together are most often partitioned into choruses and verses within a song. The writer of lyrics is known as a lyricist. A distinction is made here between a composer, who writes the song’s melody, and a lyricist, who writes the words sung to the tune of the melody. However, as is often the case, the lyricist and the composer for a given song will be the same person, known generally as a “songwriter.” Lyrics can be sung, spoken rhythmically, or simply spoken. Many genres of music possess a distinct lyrical style. An obvious example is the rhythmic lyricism of rap and hip-hop music.
What is a Lyric Right?
Keep in mind the distinction between a sound recording copyright and an underlying composition copyright. Underlying composition copyrights are administered by music publishers on behalf of songwriters. Both music and lyrics make up the underlying composition copyright.
When two songwriters co-write a song, typically both songwriters will contribute to both the lyrics and the music. Sometimes, two songwriters create the lyrics and music entirely separate. In this case, each songwriter owns 50% of the underlying composition copyright. One songwriter is not the sole owner of the lyrics while the other is the sole owner of the music — each songwriter owns 50% of the total song (music, lyrics, and all). This is an oversimplified situation in terms of copyright law, however. Depending on genre and territory, songwriters often negotiate the actual ownership percentage based on their contributions to the composition.
Any royalties collected on the song for either party must be split according to the same ownership percentages unless a different royalty percentage is specified in a separate agreement. Even the reprinting of lyrics, a royalty-garnering action, results in 50% of print royalties to the other songwriter because you both share in the song’s underlying composition copyright.
While the above scenario in which one songwriter composes the lyrics to a song entirely independent from the other songwriter may seem rare at first, consider several famous duos who operated as such:
- Bernie Taupin & Elton John: Bernie Taupin writes his lyrics, then hands them off to Elton John. The pair wrote many famous songs this way, including “Rocket Man,” “Tiny Dancer,” and “Candle In The Wind.”
- Rodgers & Hammerstein: Richard Rodgers composed the music and Oscar Hammerstein wrote the lyrics for a number of Broadway musicals including The Sound of Music, The King And I, Oklahoma!, and South Pacific.
- Geddy Lee & Neil Peart: For Canadian rock band Rush, Neil Peart is the primary lyricist and Geddy Lee focuses on the composition.
The Lyric License
According to FindLegalForms.com, a lyricist (also referred to as "licensee") and a company who desires to license and promote the song lyrics enter into a license for use of song lyrics. Oftentimes, this agreement takes place between the licensee and the music publisher, because the publisher typically owns and/or controls the lyrics along with the other rights of the song. This agreement sets out the specific details of the arrangement including: granting of the right to use the lyrics, the purposes for which the lyrics may be used, and any restrictions on the licensed lyrics use. It also sets out the license fee which will be paid and the independent contractor status of the parties. It’s important for this license agreement to be clearly detailed in writing. A well-written License for Use of Song Lyrics could potentially save both parties a world of trouble in the event of miscommunication or contractual disagreements.
Recording Hit Songs with Changed Lyrics
Occasionally, a music publisher will receive a request from a recording artist or producer to alter the lyrics of a well-known song for the purposes of a re-recording and release under a new or similar title. Weird Al Yankovic’s “Eat It” is a good example of this phenomenon. Another good example is Frank Sinatra’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The original line is: “From now on, we all will be together if the fates allow / Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow,” but Frank refused to sing the word “muddle” and changed the lyrics to “hang a shining star upon the highest bough." The licensing of this type of lyric use can be conducted in a number of ways between two parties.
Given that any success the new recording receives would be inherently reliant upon the success of the old version, most music publishers request the ownership of the copyright and subsequent publishing rights to the new song and new lyrics. If this is the case, the new lyricist will receive no publishing royalties for their work. In other scenarios, publishers may allow the lyricist for the new song to receive writer’s credit and therefore a share of the mechanical and performance royalties.
Many publishers will refuse outright to allow a recording artist to change the lyrics to a popular song for risk this will alter sales and royalties from it. In addition, many songwriters have the right as part of their publishing agreement to grant final approval to any lyric changes.
Lyrics On Merchandise
The use of lyrics on merchandise such as clothing, coffee mugs, mouse pads, keychains, and more continues to provide a valuable source of royalties for songwriters and publishers. Owners of the copyright can enter individual agreements with specific manufacturers. Often, they will agree to a 50/50 split of net revenue, which equates to roughly 15% of retail price.
The NMPA and Lyric Sites
Websites that display lyrics garner massive amounts of traffic and ad revenue. In 2013, the National Music Publishers Association sent take-down notices to the top 50 unlicensed lyric sites, claiming their use of songwriters’ lyrics should require a royalty payment. The NMPA wanted lyric sites to acquire official licenses which would grant songwriters and publishers a share of the sites’ ad revenue. These takedown notices are most likely foreshadowing a copyright infringement lawsuit against the sites, which the NMPA claims have "ignored the law and profited off the songwriters’ creative works.” However, unlike the infamous RIAA file-sharing lawsuits, the NMPA is saying that they are not targeting individual fan sites.
As of 2018, this lawsuit has not yet occurred. Nearly all lyric sites are still operational, though some of the top 50 mentioned by the NMPA have since obtained proper licensing for the use of lyrics.
- Core: Lyric rights accompany the copyright provided by songwriters to music publishers.
- Royalty Collection: Any exploitation of lyrics is an exploitation of the underlying composition copyright and subject to the protections offered by U.S. copyright law. This includes the right to reproduce, distribute, & display the lyrics publicly.
Composed by Jacob Wunderlich, Luke Evans, Mamie Davis, Rene Merideth, Jeff Cvetkovski, & Aaron Davis
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