Once you’ve found a writer whose words you want to set and discussed some basic logistics and interpersonal concerns relating to your partnership, you’ll transition to discussing rights, permissions, and compensation.
Copyright for Pieces Using Text
Who owns what rights will depend on the nature of your collaboration and what you negotiate. For transactional partnerships involving pre-existing text, the author/publisher keeps the copyright of the words, but allows the composer to use them in their piece. The composer then owns the copyright for the resulting musical work, but not the copyright for the words. If the author is creating new text for the composer to set, the same generally will be true.
However, if a composer and writer are co-creating the words and music (for example, in musical theater or a similar song-writing situation), then they might equally share the rights to both words and music. Contracts for that type of arrangement differ significantly enough from general text-setting agreements that they are outside the scope of this article.
The heart of a text-setting agreement—whether for an already written text or a new one—includes the permissions granted to the composer and what compensation they provide in exchange. When the copyright holder of a written work grants a composer text-setting permission, they are licensing the text to the composer for specific uses. How exactly the composer can use the text and what they can thus do with their composition depends on the permissions granted.
There are six permissions a composer should get:
1.) to use the text in a musical composition
2.) to license public performances of the resulting composition
3.) to publish and sell the resulting composition
4.) to have the resulting composition recorded (audio and video) and to permit the commercial release, synchronization, and/or other transmission of such recordings
5.) to print the text with proper credits in concert programs and liner notes for recordings
6.) to create arrangements or similar derivative works of the resulting composition
Permission 1 allows you to incorporate the author’s words into a musical setting. Everything else depends on this license being granted.
Permission 1 may or may not be exclusive, and exclusivity may be given in perpetuity or for a specific amount of time. If possible, I prefer to get exclusivity for at least a few years for art songs or choral works, and in perpetuity for dramatic works. If I receive exclusivity for a fixed term, I make sure the agreement specifies that I will continue to have non-exclusive permission after exclusivity expires.
When giving text-setting permission, some authors/publishers may stipulate how the text can be set. Most commonly, they could prohibit the composer from changing the text. Others may allow repeating lines or words but forbid other alterations. Or, they might indicate that any proposed modifications must be approved by the author/publisher. Less commonly, an author/publisher may also give guidelines about the music itself. I personally have not encountered this issue, but it does happen. Still, unless an author/publisher insists on it, specifying details about the musical composition in the text-setting agreement should be avoided.
In any case, if the author/publisher includes a stipulation that is a deal-breaker for you, try to negotiate with them. If that doesn’t work, you’ll need to decide if you can live with that arrangement or if you should walk away.
Permissions 2-4 ensure your composition will have a long, productive life. More performances means more performance royalties, more music sales/rentals, and more possibility for future career growth. Recordings are vital for the same reason. Even if they are not directly generating income, recordings can help to attract potential performers, presenters, and commissioners. And if you do release a recording commercially or license it for use in film or on television, you and the author/publisher will receive added income. Allowing performances, recordings, and publication thus benefits all parties.
Permissions 1-4 are essential. Do not set a text without them.
There is a little more flexibility with the other two permissions. No. 5 accounts for the standard practice of printing texts to aid in listening, but should a copyright holder balk, it is not absolutely necessary. If you don’t get this permission, include a note in your score directing presenters to request permission to print the text in a concert program from the copyright holder.
Permission 6 is also not strictly necessary (and one could argue it falls under Permission 1). Still, I prefer to be explicit about the possibility of making arrangements or other versions of a piece up front. Generally, the splits for performance royalties, sales/rentals, etc. would remain the same for any such arrangements. The main exception would be any purely instrumental pieces based on a vocal work: there, the text’s copyright holder would not have any rights to royalties or other compensation.
In return for the permissions listed above, the composer would typically compensate the copyright holder in some way. First, in any piece where text is spoken or sung, the author(s) are entitled to a portion of the performance royalties, regardless of any other compensation they might receive.
Typically, performance royalties are split 50-50 between the publisher and all creators. The 50% creator share is most commonly divided 25% to the composer(s) and 25% shared by any authors not in the Public Domain. A 2/3-1/3 split or other arrangement is possible if all parties agree. (Translators—if applicable—are included in “authors,” as they contribute to the creation of the text. Remember, translations of texts that are Public Domain in their original language may not be Public Domain themselves. In such cases, you’d need to get permission from the translator/their publisher and compensate them for use of the text.)
For non-dramatic works, these royalties are collected by performing rights organizations (or PROs) like ASCAP or BMI, who distribute the funds to their members. Authors must belong to a PRO to receive this income, so I suggest including a clause in the contract that the author must be a member of an appropriate PRO to receive their performance royalties.
Dramatic works like operas fall under grand rights, and such performances are licensed by the copyright holder(s). In that case, the composer or their publisher if they have one will need to distribute any licensing fees to the author(s). The split between composer, author(s), and if applicable, publisher should be specified in the contract.
There is no one standard for compensating a copyright holder to use a text. Some common arrangements are:
- the author receives performance royalties but no additional compensation
- the composer pays the author an upfront fee
- the composer agrees to give the author/publisher a percentage of sales/rentals
- the composer pays both an upfront fee and a percentage of sales/rentals
It is more likely performance royalties will be the sole form of compensation when one or more of the following are true:
- the composer and author have a personal relationship
- one or both is a student or emerging artist
- the composer is receiving little or no money for writing the piece
- the music will be self-published
- the text is already written
- financial need or other similar extenuating circumstances exist
Performance royalties usually provide more income over time than either an upfront fee or a percentage of the sales/rental income, so this arrangement is not an unreasonable possibility. Still, it is good to offer additional compensation when you can, especially if the author is writing a new text for your collaboration.
An upfront fee has the benefit of being a clearly defined one-time commitment. However, it requires an initial investment on a piece for which you may not have received any money yet. This can be problematic depending on your financial situation and the fee involved.
The amount requested can vary widely depending on who the author is, who the publisher is (if applicable), and who you are. If you are receiving a commission to write the piece for which you need text, you could offer a percentage of your commission fee. . If you are not being commissioned, you may have to pay the fee out of pocket. It could be relatively affordable, perhaps in the $50-200 range. Or, the fee could be a prohibitively high amount (up to $1000 or more) that you are unlikely to ever make back in future sales.
If the fee is beyond what you can afford, you might share details like planned list price, anticipated sales, or profit of similar pieces you’ve created in order to give the person with whom you are negotiating a more realistic sense of the finances involved. When the amount comes from the publisher, the author might be able to convince them to agree to a more reasonable fee. Or, if you have a publisher, they could negotiate with the author’s publisher on your behalf. Ultimately, though, if the fee is too high, you may need to find a different text or author to work with.
A percentage of the sales/rentals for the composition is another option. While this has the benefit of requiring no money up front, it could cost you more in the long-term if the piece is very successful. For published musical compositions, the publisher typically keeps 90% of the sale price. The creator share is 10%, which is split between the composer and author(s). That may be divided so that half goes to the composer and the other half is shared by any authors, or it may be split 2/3 to the composer and 1/3 to the authors. For self-published works, giving the author 10-15% of the sale/rental price is reasonable. Some composers may go as high a 50% share on sale/rental income. That split only makes sense if it comes after expenses, since you alone will be covering those.
If you are self-published, this approach also requires extra accounting to ensure the income is collected and distributed appropriately. You might make annual payments or periodic ones triggered when the author/publisher’s portion reaches a certain threshold (for example, when the total reaches $25). Whatever arrangement you and the author/publisher agree to should be detailed in your written agreement, as should the actual percentage.
Paying both an upfront fee and a percentage of sales/rental income is not to the composer’s advantage. It has all the downsides listed above plus an increased overall financial commitment. Unless you really want that text and cannot negotiate another arrangement, avoid this possibility.
Regardless of which arrangement you and text’s copyright holder agree to, you will want to write up the granted permissions, any stipulations, and all financial details into your contract. The final article of this series will focus on formalizing your agreement and completing the collaboration.
Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.