Legal question regarding songwriting collaboration

samclem said it was okay to try this again after he (correctly) pointed out that my first attempt was a little too specific.

So here’s the basic question: Say two songwriters, a composer and a lyricist, write a musical together. The composer writes all the music and the lyricist writes all the words, 50/50.

Then the lyricist begins work on another project (with another composer) and loses interest in the first one. The composer then (with the lyricist’s permission) continues working on their project alone, and it becomes about 70/30 in the composer’s favor. When the composer finally feels it’s ready to be shown to the public, he contacts the lyricist with this good news, but the lyricist feels he has been having success with his new project and no longer wants his name attached to the first one.

Does the lyricist have the right, legally speaking (in a general way), to pull his work out of a collaborative effort and deny the composer any use of this work, thereby killing the project? Or does the work, by its very nature, become the property of both writers, and can only be terminated by consent of the two of them?

Assume this is in the U.S., and there was no legal document or written agreement between the two writers.

The lyricist would hold copyright on the words, so, yes, he can stop their use. Since there’s no legal document assigning copyright to you, you can’t claim it. He’s got to agree.

In retrospect, the solution would have been to have him assign the copyright to you when the two of you broke up. All you’d need would be a sheet of paper signed by him that says you are now the copyright owner.

Your simplest solution would be to find a new lyricist. Another would be to ask if it were OK if you credited the lyrics to a pseudonym. For instance, if he’s Joe Smith, credit the lyrics to Jim Jones. That’s really a win-win for him: his name isn’t attached to the work, but if it makes any money, he gets his cut.

It’s his lyrics, he can do as he chooses.

I guess the problem is - what would you substitute? If the new lyrics are too close to the original, he can still sue for copyright infringement. You need to be able to show that the new lyric writer never saw or heard the originals if they are close. I guess you almost have to change the whole storyline… Tricky!