In the last blog entry I wrote about the declining status of status of lyricists and the declining share of songwriting income they might happen to receive. Here, I’m going to look at another reason for the death of the 'author', one that might be occasioned by the nuances of copyright law, or it might be occasioned by the fact that musicians aren’t very good at filling in forms.
British copyright law has viewed music and lyrics in two ways. It increasingly took a Bono-ite line, regarding music and lyrics as being one, but not the same. In its origins, however, the law was Spice Girls-eque. It viewed the lyrical and musical elements of a song as being two that become one. Within the past 12 months, that Spice Girls point of view has come back into focus. Music and lyrics can now dream of being together (almost) forever.
The first British legislation to fundamentally address recorded music was the Copyright Act of 1911. It advises that ‘a musical work shall be deemed to include any words so closely associated therewith as to form part of the same work’. The 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act reversed this policy. Here, ‘“musical work” was described as being a work consisting of music, exclusive of any words or action intended to be sung, spoken or performed with the music’. Under this legislation, lyrics had to lead a separate life. They were deemed to be ‘literary works’ rather than ‘musical works’. This had an effect when songwriters filed their songs with PRS for Music and declared whether they were authors (the writers of the lyrics) or composers (the writers of the music). In the UK if you were identified solely as a lyricist you could not be awarded joint authorship of a song with the musical composer(s). This is because joint authorship was defined on the basis that ‘the contribution of each author is not distinct from that of the other author or authors’. Literary and musical works were deemed to be distinct. PRS for Music regarded the two practices in this way. In the advice that they handed out about copyright law, they stated that ‘where two or more persons do collaborate but it is possible to determine the separate parts attributable to each author it will not be a work of joint authorship’.
It has nevertheless been the case that most PRS members have failed to classify themselves as either a composer or author. They have instead presented themselves as a hybrid kind: the composer-author. There are a number of reasons why the members have chosen this designation. One is because there are few songwriters who only write lyrics. It is often the case that the lyricist is the singer. In the process of working on their songs with musicians, many singers are involved in composing the top-line melody along with the words. Conversely, the musicians will sometimes chip in with lyrical ideas. A second reason is because some songwriters and/or their publishers fail to understand the distinction between composer and author and thus claim to be both. Alternatively some songwriters and publishers fail to complete this section of the PRS works form, in which case they will be listed as composer-authors by default. A final reason why songwriters and their publishers have chosen the composer-author designation is because joint authorship has real effects. It means that the ownership of the work cannot be divided in any way. Therefore, if an act does an instrumental cover version of a song that has lyrics, the lyricist will still get paid. Similarly, if there is a foreign language version of a song, the original lyricist maintains a share. Copyright lasts until 70 years after the death of the last ‘joint’ author. Consequently, it has been financially advisable for all contributors to a song identify themselves as composer-authors, at least if they’re thinking with their dependents in mind.
American songwriters receive similar benefits, but in their own country there has been a different legal framework. US copyright law has not deemed lyrics and music to be distinct. The 1976 Copyright Act groups them together under the category of ‘works of the performing arts’. Joint authorship has also been classified in a different manner. In America a ‘joint work’ is a 'work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole'. The vast majority of songs are automatically classified as joint works. It is believed that it is the plan of most lyricists and composers to weld their contributions together in a unified work of art. This law even applies when lyricists and composers are divorced by time and space. If they intend their work to come together as part of a whole, it doesn’t matter where they were when they composed their own part. It is only when there is a lack of consent in the merger that lyrics and music are treated as separate within American copyright law.
There are countries within the European Union who have a similar outlook. They see that, conceptually, a song with words is created as a joint enterprise. This is also the view taken by the EU's legislators. In the same 2011 directive that extended the duration of sound recording copyright from 50 to 70 years, it was deemed that the majority of songs are the result of joint musical and lyrical enterprises. The document states that Article 1 of EU Directive 2006/116/EC should be amended to read: 'The term of protection of a musical composition with words shall expire 70 years after the death of the last of the following persons to survive, whether or not those persons are designated as co-authors: the author of the lyrics and the composer of the musical composition, provided that both contributions were specifically created for the respective musical composition with words'. The UK implemented this directive on 1 November 2013.
Despite these changes and the differences between British, European and American law, the registration of songs looks much the same: most modern songs are classified as being written by composer-authors. As such, we know that there is a lyrical input in there somewhere, but the precise origin of this input is hard to locate. Everybody, it seems, is a lyricist now. They are all composers too.