Studio Swag: What's A Split Sheet and Why Do I Need One?

By: Attorney Ashley Couch (Of Counsel)

If you’re a creative person interested in collabs, knowing some copyright law basics is a must to understand how working with others can change things like ownership rights for your music and art.  

In the U.S., you automatically establish your copyright rights when you create your piece and memorialize it in some way.  In the music business, this means you have rights to your song when you write it down, record it or publicly perform it, for example.  Ideas alone, before they are recorded in some way, are not protected under copyright law.

But when you work with someone else, like when multiple songwriters work together to write a song in the studio, generally all of the people who creatively contribute to the final product will share joint rights to own and profit from the content by default unless they agree to different ownership splits and write some version of that agreement down.

It’s also important to understand that joint copyright owners have equal rights to register and watchdog the copyrights, and without a written agreement proving another arrangement, joint authors of a work each have the right to commercially exploit the work, so long as they pay the other owners equal shares of any proceeds.  

In a band scenario, this means each member of the band involved in writing a song would by default each own an undivided equal share of the song and each would be allowed to record and market it without approval of any other parties so long as any resulting proceeds were divided among all writers.

In general, you should always have written agreements with all other creators you collab with to ensure everyone agrees on how splits will work before any future issues like avoidable copyright infringements, licensing headaches and payment problems might arise.  

For songwriters, including musicians who write lyrics and melodies of compositions as well as producers and other band members who help create songs, an easy way to nail down some basic music publishing rights is to use a split sheet.  A split sheet is a simple document you can fill out as soon as you write a song with someone else to establish who owns what percentage of your original song. Then, each songwriter can separately register their relevant percentage with their performing rights organization and music publisher or publishing administrator of choice.

The most important elements of a split sheet are:

  1. The song title so you can all identify which song or songs the splits refer to

  2. The names, contact info and relevant percentage splits for each writer

  3. The date for copyright timeline purposes

  4. A signature for each person involved

And remember, all of the split percentages added together should total 100%.

Click here for a sample Split Sheet courtesy of Rational Unicorn Legal Services LLC.

Sidebar: If you’re hiring an independent contractor (versus an employee) to work on a piece you intend to own outright and entirely by yourself, you want to ensure you have paperwork backing up its “work for hire” status to avoid creating a joint work with shared rights and responsibilities.  Also, split sheets only apply to original music, not samples. As a rule of thumb, all samples, no matter how short, require separate permissions for use.

Want to learn more about art and entertainment law? Join Ashley and the Rational Unicorn Legal Team for a free event at Mississippi Studios on June 21st, 2pm-4pm.

Life is a Playground: Adulting for the Hustling Artist (Click to RSVP)