Cory Wolff

PUTTING IN WORK: Musical composition copyright laws explained as simply as possible

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In my last column, I talked about the two very different copyrights used in music. As you might remember, there’s the copyright for the musical composition and the copyright for the audio recording – I’ll refer to that as the master from now on.

This article is part of a series that breaks down music copyright laws simply. Read Part 1 and Part 3.

In this article, I’m going to talk about the musical composition copyright.

When I’m talking about copyright, I use examples from back in the day. You might be asking yourself, “Why the eff is he talking about some law from the 50s?” The reason is because those same rules and laws apply today. It’s dumb, but it makes total sense when I use examples from then. It’s only until we get to today do the lines become blurred. If you have an understanding of the laws when they made sense, you’ll have a clearer picture of where they fit in today.

The role of the publisher

I used Elvis Presley as an example in my last article. I mentioned that he wrote a minimal amount of his catalog. Most of his music was written by other writers. Go ahead and check it out – select “performers” and search for Elvis Presley and you’ll see some of his songs(those that are registered with ASCAP). When you click on a song, it will show you all of the writers that wrote that particular song, along with information about the publishers/administrators.

Back in Elvis’ time (and still today), publishers acted like agents for writers. They signed writers to publishing deals and shopped the songs around to labels and performers. These were, and still are, exclusive deals. This means that if you sign a publishing deal, all of your musical compositions would be represented by them.

Besides finding performers for your songs, the publisher administers the licenses. This is pretty complicated even if your composition is only performed by one performer. Licenses can include:

  • Compulsory mechanical license: This is what the record label receives from the songwriter/publisher in order to record the song and actually distribute it. This is what you need from the composition copyright holder if you want to clear a sample. Well, this and permission from whoever owns the master (usually the record label). This is why it’s such a pain to clear samples.
  • Sync license: These are licenses that are specific to recordings used in video commercials or films. It’s called a sync license because you’re giving them the right to sync a sound recording to a video.
  • Public performance license: This is the license that radio stations use. They’re also issued for jukeboxes and music services that restaurants and stores subscribe to – usually under a “blanket license.”

In exchange for administering the licenses and finding performers, the publisher shares in the royalties – usually it’s a 50/50 split between the songwriter and the publisher. It’s important to note that in order for the publisher to actually have the legal right to collect this money, they must be part owner of the musical composition copyright. The songwriter assigns 50 percent of the copyright for each song to the publisher. These deals run for a limited amount of time, usually five to seven years.

Remember – record labels deal with the audio recording copyright or master. We didn’t even start to talk about this!

In a sense, a publisher is like an agent for songwriters and musical compositions. This is the traditional way that songwriters get paid. There’s also times when the songwriter does a work-for-hire, where they give up their rights to collect royalties in exchange for a flat fee. In this type of arrangement, the publisher would have to agree to the deal and, of course, get their cut.

My brain hurts. How about yours?

Here’s an interesting read: “How Much Does It Cost to Make a Hit Song?

Register your copyright, yo

I’m not going to explain specifically how to register your copyright. The Copyright Office actually has a pretty good tutorial on how to do it here. But here’s some highlights:

  • Type of work: If you’re registering the composition, you want to select “Work of the Performing Arts.” If you’re registering the audio copyright, you select “Sound Recording.”
  • Authors contribution: If this work was written by a number of people, make sure to add authors on your application. The application will ask you what each author wrote. If it was just you, then just add yourself as the first author.
  • Entering claimant information: If you and the other authors aren’t the only claimant, then why are you doing this yourself? Tell your publisher/lawyer to handle this! FYI, this is where the publisher would be added.

Performing rights organizations (PROs)

The primary role of performing rights organizations (PROs) like ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC is to track and collect performance royalties from those sources that make commercial use of the music of their contracted members. They deduct certain administrative costs and disburse the remaining royalties to these members, which are comprised of songwriters, composers, and publishers.

PROs do not collect mechanical royalties; they only collect public performance royalties. These are royalties paid most commonly by radio stations with blanket licenses and TV/film production companies. Realize that even if your composition was licensed to a TV/film production company (for a license fee, of course), you’re still entitled to be paid every time that commercial or film was performed publicly.

If you’re a songwriter, you should register with one. They all do the same thing; it’s just a matter of preference with which one you go with. Check them out, pick one, and register now before you blow up!

There’s been much debate over the past decade about outdated copyright laws. Most recently, Congress held hearings about what’s called the consent decree (you can watch it here), and talks to revamp the law are gearing up. But for now, and the near future, this is how it works, and the registration process will most likely be the same.

Make sure to keep reading. In the next few articles, we’ll talk about masters and how labels and artists make money from them.

Written while listening to “B4.DA.$$” by Joey Bada$$. I have to admit, I wrote him off as some hip-pop, but I was pleasantly surprised by the album. Check it out.

Putting in Work: The Beauty of Music & Business is a bi-weekly column filled with thoughts, inspirations, and experiences from a music marketer born and raised in Scranton. Let’s step our game up together.