Legal Guide

Split Sheets and Intellectual Property

In the excitement of creative development, musicians often neglect business essentials. This leaves them vulnerable to exploitation from industry experts. One wrong signature, and songwriters risk giving away the fruits of their efforts. 

Copyright protection is essential, but unfortunately, obtaining a registered copyright is rarely straightforward in the music industry — nor is it the only step necessary for securing essential protection. Musicians often draw inspiration from one another, with teams of songwriters working together to transform a simple idea into a musical masterpiece. If multiple people contribute to the songwriting effort in different ways, how are they supposed to achieve the recognition they deserve? 

Enter split sheets, which serve an essential purpose in the music business: giving credit where credit is due. Split sheets are valuable in an industry plagued by copyright disputes, but they can also be risky for musicians who don't understand their purpose. Below, we explain the basics of split sheets and highlight situations in which their use may be warranted — or outright necessary.

What Are Split Sheets? What Purpose Do They Serve?

Split sheets determine the exact portion of a completed work of music each contributing artist owns — and the extent of ensuing royalties he or she will be paid if the work proves profitable. 

If songwriters fail to negotiate a split sheet or some other agreement, they are presumed to hold equal shares in the final product. This arrangement may be acceptable for some musicians, but could prove problematic for those who believe that they have contributed different portions of the work — and who feel that they should be compensated accordingly. 

When Should Split Sheets Be Developed?

Ideally, split sheets will be created immediately after a song has been completed, and well before royalties come into play. The sooner the split sheet is drafted, the better idea participating artists will have as to their individual contributions. 

If you've completed a song but have not yet developed a split sheet, it might not be too late — especially if you've yet to enter a license or similar deal. Some publishing companies may actually withhold contracts until you and your fellow artists have made arrangements in regards to ownership share and related royalty splits. Likewise, record companies may hold off on actually paying royalties until they are certain as to where those payments will end up; the last thing executives want is to deal with liability issues.

Essential Components of Split Sheets

Split sheets can be as simple or as detailed as songwriters desire. Their core function, of course, is to designate how ownership of a completed song is divided. Some songwriters take the easy route with equal ownership. For example: a group of three songwriters may divide a work into three equal shares.

Many songwriting teams prefer to tackle split sheets based on the amount contributed by each artist. This is where matters can get complicated. Artists must determine how they will scale various contributions. Length, for example, may be considered, but the value of each portion of the music often plays a larger role. The hook, for example, is typically deemed the most important aspect of the song, and therefore, worthy of a greater split.

More often than not, splits occur in relation to industry standards. This can be complicated, as standards are not set in stone. Without significant leverage, however, it can be difficult to secure a share of the completed work that exceeds the standard for a particular music genre. What's more, standards can differ within the industry — especially based on a given work's musical style. In hip hop or R&B, for example, the producer may enjoy a greater copyright share than in other genres. 

What About Copyright Protection?

Split sheets and copyright protection are not one and the same. Split sheets consist of agreements between contributing artists, while copyright protects works against infringement from outsiders. Both are critical for songwriters, however, who may need protection against both outsiders and those with whom they work directly. When used together, split sheets and federal copyright protection can provide valuable proof of an individual artist's copyright interest in a particular song. 

When Is Legal Representation Necessary?

Split sheets can prove surprisingly complicated. This is particularly true for large teams of songwriters that include producers. If artists and producers disagree on the proposed terms of split sheets — or if they dispute those terms as they proceed with record deals — counsel from a trusted entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles may be warranted. The right attorney can assist artists or songwriters as they attempt to secure a greater split of the work or as they strive to hold fellow artists accountable in royalty disputes. 

Split sheets are not necessary for every songwriter, but they can prove helpful in many situations. This valuable tool could determine whether artists receive their fair share of credit for their efforts, and ultimately, the extent of royalties they've earned. For this reason, it is important to keep copyright split in mind throughout the entirety of the song creation process and in its immediate aftermath. Failure to pursue proper splits could lead to long-term negative repercussions for hardworking songwriters.

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