Dear Rich: I write song lyrics and about three years ago collaborated by email with a composer. He sent me a musical composition that I have since written lyrics to and would like to pitch for a TV ad campaign and CD production. Unfortunately, I get no response from email, and the Soundcloud page of the composer is inactive. Can I use the music legally or do I have to have written permission? I can’t think of any other ways to contact this person to get authorization.
It sounds as if you and the composer—like Felice and Boudleaux Bryant—intended to combine words and music into “inseparable or interdependent parts.” That makes you and the composer joint copyright owners of the song.
Rights of joint owners. With one exception (see below), joint copyright owners can separately grant permission (a license) for someone to use the song, provided that each writer shares the income with the others. If the writers have not agreed on the percentages, courts often start with the presumption that all songwriters contributed equally. Because you cannot locate the composer, you should put aside the composer’s share of any income as a demonstration of your good faith.
First authorization of song. There’s one question that’s unresolved: Do all cowriters have to consent to the first release of the song? We think so because the first release makes the song available for anyone who pays a fee to record the song. Keep in mind that others may disagree because there is no explicit requirement in copyright law that all writers must agree to the first release. If you’ve used your best efforts to locate the composer and you’ve documented your efforts, you may be better served disregarding our advice in this situation.