Know your rights: Our guide to collaboration copyright

With Twine, you can connect with artists you’ve never met from around the world and get working with them instantly. It’s therefore really important that you know your legal rights, so that you can protect yourself from being exploited, your work being stolen, or you being sued. No one wants that to happen, unless you’re a lawyer of course…

The most important thing you need to know is what’s meant by a joint work and when a project becomes a finished work in the eyes of the law. According to the Copyright Act, a “joint work” is created when two or more authors intend to merge their original contributions into a single work. While the authors don’t have to be in the same place at the same time, they need to intend the work they create to be part of the collaboration.

A “joint work” means that all of the authors get equal ownership portions, unless another agreement is made. To be a co-author, you need to have made an independently copyrightable contribution to the work. This contribution has also got to be more than making coffee, offering general directions or suggesting “ideas” (which are not protectable under copyright law). Any co-author has the right to perform, reproduce and license the work without the consent of the others, as long as they share any income received equally between them.

To make sure all the musicians are clear when you start a project, it’s a good idea to create and sign a collaboration agreement. This is the best way to provide evidence of what each author has agreed to. The document doesn’t need to be lengthy, it just needs to clearly set out the terms each artist has agreed to. Otherwise, unless everyone agrees, each copyright owner has the right to make money from the work, provided that the other copyright owners get an equal share. This is very different to a derivative work, as Alan Korn demonstrates in this useful Beatles analogy:

“If Paul McCartney was to discover a pre-existing poem by John Lennon and set it to music, he would not be the co-author of the resulting work. This completed song would instead be a “derivative work” under the Copyright Act. This means Paul McCartney could be sued by the copyright owner if he used this poem without permission (When creating a derivative work it is necessary to have the permission of the author of the underlying work, unless it falls within the public domain)”.

DJ mixes and remixes are great examples of the issues artists face when creating derivative works. Even if you mix a track in a completely different style to the original, you still need to get permission before you can publish and send out the work online, because you weren’t the original author.

It can also be really difficult to get all the co-authors to agree on the terms. It’s common for one artist to pressure the others and negatively affect all the other parties. It’s therefore important to establish some guidelines for voting, and a method to break ties, when the parties don’t agree.

When you start working on any collaborative project, is really important that you make everyone clear on the terms and what has been agreed. If you are ever confused or concerned then make sure you do your research or seek professional legal advice. To find out more, read the US Copyright Office Guide or the UK Government Guide to copyright protection.

Notice: This post is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice based on a review of individual circumstances. Please contact a lawyer or attorney regarding your particular legal issues.

Articles cited:


Joe Scarffe

Joe Scarffe

Joe is the CMO at Twine.

When he’s not moaning about the state of the music industry or public transport in Manchester, he works with the Twine community and handles social media, the blog and partnerships with companies and institutions.