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Asked & Answered: Can co-writers exclude music rights from screenplay rights?

Q: I am writing a musical with a talented writer and filmmaker. We have agreed to a  60%-40% split on the scriptwriting. Since I am the sole writer for the music and will pay for it's production, we have mutally agreed that I keep 100% of the music rights. We plan to sell the script.

In part, the Writer Collaboration Agreement mentions that

“… all sequel remake and television spin-off rights, novelization, merchandising, play, radio
and audio rights to the screenplay be shared by…

How can we reword this to clarify our 60%-40% shared rights in the scriptwriting, and my 100% ownership of music?

A: Yes, it is possible, in a collaboration agreement, to separate rights in certain components of the work, so that a composer retains all rights in the songs, while the parties share equally (or according to some other formula) in the other components.  Unfortunately, each situation is different, so there's no set ‘form' or ‘standard' way to handle this wording.

Split-rights collaborations are actually very common, just not in the film industry.  In the world of theatre, it's usual that musicals are created by a team of collaborators.  Specifically, a book writer (libretist), a composer (who writes the score), and a lyricist.    Generally, they split things equally, but where a song is used outside the context of the show, the composer and lyricist retain the rights to their songs.

It's important to be very specific about what IS and what IS NOT shared.  For example, in the question presented, what happens to the so-called ‘performance rights income' collected by ASCAP, BMI or other performance rights societies, when that income is derived from exhibitions of the film?    What about the soundtrack album for the film?  Does the non-musical co-writer still get a percentage of the mechanical royalties?  After all, the album wouldn't have happened if not for the film, right?

The best advice I can offer here is to prepare a new, comprehensive collaboration agreement that properly addresses this situation.  It's not always appropriate to just ‘re-word' an existing contract.  The help of a knowledgeable, experienced entertainment lawyer is essential in this kind of situation, so you can make sure all bases are covered.

One other thing: Since you plan to sell the script, you'll need to be very careful in negotiating the option/rights agreement to ensure that the songs aren't covered by the expansive ‘all rights, any media, in perpetuity' language.    Don't try to do this yourself.  Even if you have an agent, this situation absolutely requires an entertainment lawyer who ‘understands' music rights, as well as film deals.

This is intended as general information only and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. It is not a substitute for a private, independent consultation with an attorney selected to advise you after a full investigation of the facts and law relevant to your matter. We will not be responsible for readers’ detrimental reliance upon the information appearing in this feature.

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