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Why every writing team should have a written collaboration agreement. (part 1 of 3)

This is the first in a series of three posts on the importance of collaboration agreements for writing and other creative teams.

What is a collaboration agreement?

Any time two or more people join together to create a work such as a play, musical, song, screenplay, or any other work of art or authorship, they are considered collaborators.  A collaboration Agreement is a contract between the collaborators that sets forth the terms and conditions of their work together,  the division of responsibilities, disposition of the finished product, and sharing of revenues derived from the product’s exploitation.

What terms does a collaboration agreement typically contain?

The Fundamental terms of any collaboration agreement are typically centered around the following:]

A.  Copyright ownership of the finished work.

In many cases, a collaborative work will be considered a “Joint Work” under copyright law, and will result in an equal split of ownership among the authors unless a different split is set forth in the agreement.   Some special cases arise, however in the music and theatre industries.

In the case, for example, of a song, written by a composer and a lyricist, the collaboration agreement may provide for varying percentage participations if only the music or only the lyric is used.

Even more complicated is the case of a stage musical, where the music and lyrics are combined with the book/libretto containing the action and dialogue of the show.    What if the musical is adapted as a straight-play?  Do the lyricist and composer share in the rights fees?  What if the songs are released on a cast album, or later become popular and are recorded by others?  Does the bookwriter share in the record royalties, performing rights royalties, other revenues from exploitation of the songs?

Why do we need a collaboration agreement?

In the absence of a collaboration agreement, the parties may or may not be considered partners.  The work they create may or may not be considered a “joint work”, and thus ownership and control of the disposition of the work called into question.    While it is true that these issues tend only to arise in situations where the team has broken up, or is in the process of doing so,  the existence of a collaboration agreement can be useful in managing  the parties’ separation.  In some respects, a collaboration agreement is the creative team’s equivalent of a prenuptial agreement.  But in many cases the collaboration agreement can be much much more.

By negotiating the terms of the collaboration agreement at the outset of the work, the parties can uncover differences in their expectations, and avoid problems that might otherwise arise later.  In the absence of a collaboration agreement,  the parties’ efforts  may be lost if there's no meeting of the minds,  and the project may simply wind up being  abandoned… or  mired in litigation.    Obviously, it is important to work with a lawyer to craft a workable contract that’s tailored to your team’s specific circumstances.

In part 2, we'll continue examining the usual terms of a collaboration agreement.  Stay tuned.

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