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Songwriter group pushes back on superstar artists demanding a copyright cut on songs they didn’t co-write

By | Published on Wednesday 31 March 2021

The Pact

A number of songwriters in the US have formally backed a new campaign that has been gaining momentum online over the last week and which seeks to stop famous artists from grabbing a cut of the copyright in songs that they help make famous but don’t actually co-write. The songwriters speaking out about this practice say that such copyright grabs have become “normalised” in the music industry, but that’s because “there has been no real unity within the songwriting community to fight back”.

“Add a word, get a third” is the legal cliche sometimes used to describe this practice, whereby a famous artist makes a minor alteration to a new song when recording it in the studio, and then claims co-writer status and a cut of the copyright in the song. Of course, it’s often not even that subtle.

Songwriters are often told that having a big name act record one of their songs is conditional on them giving that artist a co-write credit and a slice of the song copyright. And sometimes a pretty significant slice too. The argument goes that having a smaller cut of a song that the big name artist makes a hit is better than having a larger cut of a song no one has ever heard of.

Even if you buy that argument, in the context of the current big debate in the music community – whereby songwriters argue that, unlike the record industry, they are not yet seeing the benefit of the streaming boom – it seems even more unethical for a recording artist to demand a cut of the writer’s primary revenue stream.

Although, it’s never seemed that fair. Even when the recorded music business was struggling in the 2000s, and the drop in recordings income partly contributed to more stakeholders seeking a cut of publishing. Because even then, songwriters often pointed out, artists still had multiple revenues streams – eg rights, merch, touring, brand deals, direct-to-fan – whereas songwriters were entirely dependent on copyright income, which remains true today.

In an open letter, this new group of songwriters going by the name The Pact, write: “Over the last few years, there has been a growing number of artists that are demanding publishing on songs they did not write. These artists will go on to collect revenue from touring, merchandise, brand partnerships, and many other revenue streams, while the songwriters have only their publishing revenue as a means of income”.

“This demand for publishing is often able to happen because the artist and/or their representation abuse leverage, use bully tactics and threats, and prey upon writers who may choose to give up some of their assets rather than lose the opportunity completely”, they add. “Over time, this practice of artists taking publishing has become normalised; and until now, there has been no real unity within the songwriting community to fight back. That is why we have decided to join together, in support of each other, and make a change”.

The signatories to the letter then state: “This body of songwriters will not give publishing or songwriting credit to anyone who did not create or change the lyric or melody or otherwise contribute to the composition without a reasonably equivalent / meaningful exchange for all the writers on the song”.

They then insist that they recognise the importance and value of the artist, producer and label in making, releasing and marketing recordings of their songs. However, they add, those people reap the rewards generated by the recording copyright, and should allow the writers to enjoy the benefits of the song copyright.

“We are simply asking that we not be put in positions where we are forced to give up all we have in exchange for nothing”, they add “we are simply asking that we give credit where credit is due and only take credit where credit is earned”.

Signatories to the letter include Amy Allen, Deza, Ross Golan, Scott Harris, Shae Jacobs, Ian Kirkpatrick, Savan Kotecha, Lennon Stella, Joel Little, Billy Mann, Jordan McGraw, Victoria Monét, Tayla Parx, Justin Tranter and Emily Warren. Meanwhile, other songwriters are encouraged to put their name to the statement on The Pact’s website.

This is one of a number of campaigns currently being pursued by the songwriter community in a bid to protect and enhance the value of their music rights.

Other campaigns seek a further re-slicing of the digital pie to the songwriter’s benefit; call on publishers to remove contract terms that oblige writers to deliver songs that have had commercial releases by big record labels; urge writers to resist commissions from the TV, film and advertising sectors that require them to give up all rights and future royalties in the music they are commissioned to create; and call on labels to provide songwriters with expenses and royalty rights on recordings when they directly work with artists in the studio on new songs.