Ask George: Music Biz 101

Ask George: Music Biz 101

Dear George,
  
I’m a vocalist and lyricist. While in a band quite a few years ago, I brought some lyrics to an arrangement one of the other bandmates wrote. I then flushed the rest of the song out lyrically and melodically to the music the band wrote together. We even recorded the song and had it mixed.  The band decided it didn’t want to put the song out, and a short bit later (not related), a number of band members decided to part ways. Although the band continued on, the song was never released.  from conversations with old band members, there is no plan to ever put it out.
 
Splits were never discussed with regards to this specific song, nor was any agreement reached before parting ways. We did decide on even splits between the group on all the songs we had released, but for some reason we never discussed this one, since it was permanently sidelined. One thing that is clear, however, is I wrote all of the lyrics and top line.
 
So,  A few questions:
My understanding is that songwriting is broken up into a few parts, Lyrics, Melody (or Top line),  the chords, and finally arrangement. Is that correct?
I joined a new band, and want to put the lyrics on a whole new song. Its a different key, different tempo, everything is different except the lyrics. Do I still have to give song writing credit to my previous band mates? I feel like  it wouldn’t be right of me to bring the song to the band without telling them it comes with baggage. Would I have to get permission from my old band to use the lyrics?
 
Second, Can they put at the song out with a different vocalist? Even if its just re-using the chorus and writing all new verses?
Thank you!
 
- Stuck In Splitsville
 
Dear Stuck In Splitsville,
 
Alright we'll first of all I'm not a lawyer and any advice given here should be independently researched. 
 
With that said there are a few things here that need to be considered. 
Did you have all the lyrics written out before meeting with the band? 
If so you would in theory have a copyright to those lyrics. However if by "flushed the rest of the song out lyrically..." you mean you wrote new/ additional lyrics to the music, now you have more of a co written song. In this case you may have written all the lyrics but there is an argument that without the music you wouldn't have written these new lyrics and thus separating music and lyrics as separate copyrights is questionable. 
 
There's a difference between putting music to an existing lyrics (such as a poem) and creating lyrics for a specific piece of music. 
 
A song is traditionally separated into 2 parts - Lyrics and Melody. Chords and in most cases arrangements (public domain arrangements can result in new songwriting copyright) are not part of the copyright. For example a jazz arrangement of a pop song, let's just say Yesterday by The Beatles (McCartney/ Lennon), will have all sorts of different chords (reharmonization) and maybe a different arrangement of verse, chorus etc... but this is still a cover of the original song. If you wanted to claim any copyright for a new work you would have to get permission from their publisher. With all that said songwriting/ publishing credit can be split in really anyway as long as there is an agreement. 
 
Now for the new band... if you wrote all the lyrics beforehand, and that's provable, then technically you could put it to completely new music, as long as it's completely new music. However the better thing to do would be just get some sort of agreement with your previous band mates. Get the acknowledgment that those lyrics are your sole copyright and that they have no claim to the lyrics. This would cover any issues that might come up. 
 
Part two: This one is a little trickier. There is a right called first use right. You are a co copyright owner (as long as they are using some of your lyrics) and you are entitled to control the first commercial recording of the song. So as long as the song hasn't been recorded and released before then you are in control of how that song gets released. If there is already a commercial release of the song, then they could put out the song with a different vocalist, essentially becoming a cover. However, if they have new verses then it's a different song or technically a derivative work. Then the songwriting/publishing splits are different and they would need your permission to use parts of your lyrics. It can get a little messy here without an agreement. 
 
In conclusion: Both songs can exist, they can share lyrics and have different songwriting splits. Just make sure they have different song titles so there is no confusion which is which.