Songs and compositions: know your rights

Sam Jordan from the Musicians' Union explores the world of rights and how it applies to musicians...


Songs and compositions will always play a huge part in your career as a musician.

So whether you are a songwriter yourself or you work with someone else’s songs, knowing the rights involved with them is very important. 

How are the rights protected and what are the key things you need to know before working on, or with a song?

From songwriting splits to music publishing, check out our essential advice…


Copyright is the right to prevent copying. It means the owner of a copyright can stop others from duplicating their work.

There is no formal copyright registration process in the UK and it is protected under the Copyright Designs & Patents Act 1988.

Copyright in a song/composition exists when it is created and is first owned by the creator/author(s). In relation to the music (a musical work), the composer would be first owner of copyright, and with the lyrics (a literary work), the writer would be the first owner.

Whether it be electronically or just written down, the song must be recorded in a tangible form for the copyright to exist. So, an idea for a song in your head is not protected."

Although there is no formal copyright registration process in the UK, there are a number of ways you can work to prove you are the owner and when a song was written. If someone copies your song without your consent, then the following could provide evidence of your rights:

· Post a CD and lyric sheet to yourself by recorded mail and leave it unopened.

· Send dated work files to yourself.

· Register the song with a collection society. Use the MU’s Copyright Service (included in MU membership)

Co-writing and song splits

When collaborating on songs with other musicians and co-writing, it is important to agree the song splits so you know what share of the song you each own.

Begin discussions on this as early as possible and ensure that an agreement is signed that all parties are happy with. Ideally, you should do this at the start of the writing session before the creation of the composition/song.

It is important to know that there is no industry standard on song splits and the percentages agreed. Those involved in the writing session are free to negotiate the share as they feel necessary, and as long as everyone is happy with the deal, it’s the right deal.

Negotiate what you think is fair with songwriting splits. Some will base it on how much input each person had on the song and some will decide to split it evenly."

We strongly advise our members to obtain written confirmation and offer a Song Share Agreement template you can use once the splits are agreed.

New arrangements

If you are considering creating a new arrangement of someone else’s song/composition, then it is important to know you will require consent from the copyright holder to do so. A new arrangement could consist of changes to the instrumentation, melody, harmony or rhythm of a song, so you should seek permission if any of those changes are being made.

To find out who the rightsholders are, you can check the PRS for Music database, which can be accessed by their members.

If the rightsholder is a publisher, then the best place to start with finding their contact details is the Music Publishers Association Directory of Members.


If you wish to release a straight cover of a song or ‘faithful reproduction’, then you may be able to do so without contacting the rightsholder.

Obtaining an MCPS licence through PRS for Music would provide clearance on the rightsholder’s behalf and essentially allow you to make copies of that song for release.

If a song has been adapted, rearranged or not been released before, then it is likely that an MCPS licence wouldn’t cover the release and you would need consent from the rightsholder directly."

If you are unsure then it is best to check with both MCPS and the rightsholder first.

Performing a cover live should be a simpler process and shouldn’t require you to do as much as when you are recording and releasing it. The following PRS/MCPS section explains further.


If you are writing/composing music then you should look into joining PRS for Music: your membership is for both PRS (Performing Rights Society) and MCPS (Mechanical Copyright Protection Society), so you can register your works with them.

Working under the umbrella organisation of PRS for Music, both are collection societies meaning they will collect royalties for uses of your songs on your behalf and distribute them to you accordingly.

PRS collect money for the broadcast (airplay) and public performance (in clubs, bars and so on) of songs.

Your setlists can be submitted to PRS so that the writers/rightsholders of the songs can be paid accordingly for the performance of their work. So, if you are performing your own songs the royalties will be distributed to you, and if you are performing a cover, PRS will pay the relevant rightsholder. This will only happen in PRS licenced venues so if you perform in a venue that doesn’t have a licence, PRS will be notified of this when you submit your setlist and make efforts to licence the venue so the rightsholders can be paid.

MCPS collects the licence fees due whenever registered music is reproduced for products such as CDs, digital downloads, streams and uses in TV, film or radio.

Find out more about the differences between PRS and MCPS.

Music publishing

The copyright in your songs can also be referred to as the ‘publishing’ rights. As a songwriter you may at some point be approached to work with and sign with a music publisher.

If you are not signed with a publisher and are exploiting your songs yourself, as well as collecting the money generated from them, then essentially you are self-publishing.

Many composers and songwriters choose to sign with a music publisher to benefit from their services in exchange for a portion of their royalties."

Explore the benefits of signing with a publisher.

If you are offered a publishing contract it is important to have it reviewed by a solicitor before agreeing anything. As a benefit of membership, MU members can access our Contract Advice and Negotiation Service.

Find out more about the MU and how it can support you via You can also stay up to date with the latest MU news, events and campaigns via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Thinking about joining the Union? Full-time students can join for £19.60 a year.

Read Sam's previous blog on 5 things to do when starting your music industry career. 

Image by Aliko Sunawang from Pixabay

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October 26, 2019
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