Documentation and Planning for the Future

Most of us have a few files where we keep important papers, such as our birth certificate, car title, home mortgage documents, insurance policies, tax returns and the like.  All of these papers are important.  Sadly, the same amount of attention is seldom paid by songwriters to the details of perhaps their biggest asset, the catalog of their works.

Long, long after your house is sold, your car is scrap metal, your insurance policies have expired, your tax returns are landfill, and you have gone on to the great beyond, your songs will still be protected, will still have a stream of income, and will live on.  The life of a copyright created since January 1, 1978 is the life of the last surviving writer plus 70 years.  If you are a songwriter who has written works that earn money, your songs are going to outlive you for a very long time.

Example: Say you are a songwriter who has written a hit song or a big album cut when you were 27 years old with another songwriter who was 25. You live to be 77 years old and your co-writer lives to be 86. The copyright protection on that song will last fully 70 years after the co-writer’s death, which is 9 years after your own. Adding up the number of years of protection based on his/her life as the last surviving writer, you and your estate experienced 131 years of copyright protection from when the song was written. That means you and your heirs are eligible to receive income from that song for 131 years. 131 years ! What is little known in songwriting circles, it seems, is that for as many as 96 of those years, the income of this song could have been greatly increased if you had filed a termination notice with your publisher and structured a better deal for your already established song, even with the same publisher. 96 years of greater earnings.

In the above example, which will not be uncommon, your heirs can receive royalties from your song for 81 years after your death.  It is your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who will benefit.  And their best chance to do so will be if your copyright house is in order.

Why shouldn’t a songwriter just trust their publisher to take care of it?  For many reasons, keeping your house in order is not something you should rely solely on a publisher to do, even though it is precisely what most songwriters have done.

Here’s why you need to have your own documentation:

  • There is a good chance you may have works at many different publishers over the life of your career.  Different publishers, different accountings, different agreements, and different sub-publishers around the world all add to the complexity of trying to monitor usage, royalties, and errors.  Using your right to terminate in the future can bring all of your works under one administration.
  • Though it is often promoted that the publisher and the songwriter have the same interests, in truth there are many ways that your separate interests are not the same.  Publishers do what is best for their bottom line and that of their executives and shareholders.   Having control of your works allows you to do what is in your best interest.  You have to have your facts to do so.
  • Major publishers have become depositories for an enormous number of songs, some boasting that they have a million copyrights in their catalogs.  They continue to acquire other publishers with large catalogs, placing a greater workload on existing or even smaller staff.  Your works are probably not as important to them as you might hope.  Original documents and agreements with your signature get buried in warehouses. People you knew and trusted move on, get fired, retire, or die. Over time, most songs become merely a back-room accounting code, tracked by fewer and fewer employees as the music business tries to cut costs.
  • Publishing companies have millions of dollars on account in “suspense reports”; money that they do not pay out because they claim they cannot find the rightful recipients due to mistakes, misspellings, audits they receive with no titles identified, and incorrect distributions.   There is no benefit for a publisher to go to too much trouble, either.  Potentially, your heirs might never get the distributions they are entitled to due to clerical slip-ups, which are not uncommon.  As a matter of fact, it could be affecting your payments right now.  Auditing is the only way to know you’ve gotten all that is rightfully yours.  It’s another reason to know your facts, regain control of your copyrights, and decide who you allow to administer them in the future.
  • There is no way it is in a publisher’s long term interests to let writers know the copyright law allows them to terminate their contracts and recapture the rights to their works.  Writers have this right even if there is an unpaid balance from advances.   Publishers are not in the business of giving up copyrights, so don’t expect them to volunteer this information.

The bottom line is you, the songwriter, must accept the responsibility to pull together the documentation of facts pertaining to your songs, and to prepare for the long future of your works.  It is in your best interest, the best interest of your loved ones, and the best interest of your songs.

Legacyworks, LLC is here for that purpose.  We are about planning; about benefiting the creator and the creator’s heirs.  We are an independent service to research and document your songs, both past works and those you continue to create.  We assemble detailed copyright and contractual facts on each song and prepare the schedules and documents necessary to terminate and renegotiate at the appropriate time.  We offer referrals to experts in a variety of fields who can help you maximize what is in your best interest, and we give you everything your heirs will need to track what you created.


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