What happens if a musician co-wrote a song or multiple songs with his band after which point the group relationship is terminated and one or more of the musicians part ways? Well, this issue should ideally be resolved in a written document each serious band should begin its career with, simply called a Band Agreement. This document spells out the respective interests in all copyrights, the division of financial rewards, and numerous other issues, such as the band’s outside representatives, the band members’ responsibilities (professional equipment, showing up on time, etc.), touring matters, practice matters, and dispute resolution issues. Such an agreement is fundamental to the smooth functioning of a cohesive musical unit that purports to make a career out of writing and performing music. A band without such an agreement, is and likely will remain an amateur performer, and is likely to experience a rocky career.
If no Band Agreement exists, the default copyright laws state that the creators own the composition in equal shares, but this applies only to copyrightable portions. Drum beats are not copyrightable; nor are chord progressions. Therefore, whoever writes the original music and lyrics of the composition will share in the copyright. If the bass player wrote the main melody or main hook of the song, that is copyrightable, and if the guitarist and vocalist crafted the rest of the song, then three individuals will share the copyright ownership equally, and the federal copyright registration will name three owners. If the bassist is thereafter kicked out of the band, or perhaps simply parts ways for greener pastures, the band will do well to obtain a copyright assignment(s) from that party, who will probably and properly demand some form of payment, either flat or percentage, and perpetual credit as songwriter, though everything is negotiable. The amount of the payment depends on the band’s star power and potential income that may be generated from the composition(s) in question. Always consult an attorney when selling your intellectual property.
If the band member leaves without signing a copyright assignment and the band decides to record the song anyway, you should be aware that the copyright has already vested in the songwriters, therefore it is irrelevant if the departed member plays on the master recording or not. Or say the group already recorded the tune using the former band member and simply decides to market it by distributing copies on the road or online. Well, the answer is simple: the songwriter royalties due the departed member are 1/3 in the above example; therefore, that person has a right to, and may sue for, that amount as generated by the mechanical reproductions of his composition(s). The royalties are due on printing of the cds, none of them actually have to be sold. Remember that if the former band member did not perform on the master then he has no ownership interest in it, but only the copyright rights in the composition(s) he co-wrote. Current statutory mechanicals are 9.1c per song for compositions under five minutes, and if the band owns the master recording then that is the amount due to the former band member, per song he has an interest in, and the group keeps and splits the rest. If the master is owned by a label, then all the copyright holders will get equal shares of the mechanicals, while the drummer may get nothing.
If the band is also functioning as its own publishing company, or assigns part of its publishing copyright to a publisher, then the departed group member is also due his share of publishing royalties. For example, if the above band assigns 25% of its publishing rights to a publisher, after the band receives 75% of the publishing royalties, they owe the departed member 25%, and are liable for this amount regardless if the person is a part of the group or not. The publisher attempts to obtain the band revenue other than through cd/internet sales, which are from the master recordings, and such royalties are called mechanical royalties which are typically collected and distributed to musicians by the Harry Fox Agency. So, publishing royalties due the departed band mate are in addition to the mechanical royalties the group obtains.