Quick Guide to Music Licensing: An Intro to a Musician's Legal Rights

patrick-pilz-146040.jpg

Licensing can be a significant form of revenue and exposure for musicians even if it doesn’t tend to grab headlines like touring or record sales. In fact, there are plenty of songwriters out there who make a great living without ever stepping in front of a live crowd or releasing music under their own name. But the world of licensing can be a complicated one so if you’re an independent musician feeling overwhelmed by the legalese that tends to accompany such deals, then you are not alone. 

Comps and Masters

Every song consists legally of the composition and the master, with the composition referring to the melodies, lyrics, notes, etc. that make up a song and the master referring to a specific recording of that composition. It is incredibly easy to copyright a composition (assuming it’s an original work): all you need is a tangible copy.

This could mean notes and lyrics written on paper or it could mean the song being played into a recording device (even just a rough recording on your smartphone constitutes a tangible copy). That’s it. There’s no need to register it anywhere for a legal copyright to exist (however note that if you want to enforce your copyright by filing a lawsuit then you do need to register it).

Once you’ve got your tangible copy then you have the exclusive right to: perform the work publicly, make and distribute copies (i.e. masters) of the work, reproduce the work, or create a derivative work (like a remix or parody). Thus, absent your permission, it is illegal for anyone to use your songs in any of those ways. Typically, permission is granted by issuing the applicable license to another party.

Types of Licenses

A copyright owner can issue (or authorize an agent to issue) a number of different licenses. They are as follows:

Public Performance License: the right to perform your song publicly. Some examples of public performances include: a band playing a cover of someone else’s song at a concert, background music in restaurants, or a song being played at halftime of a pro basketball game. Obviously it would be impossible for each individual artist to track all of the occasions when their music is played publicly so fortunately you don’t need worry about that. Performance Rights Organizations (BMI, ASCAP, etc.) allow artists to register their music and then pass off the task of collecting royalties for public performances to them.

Mechanical Licenses: the right to reproduce and distribute your composition. Record companies, for example, require mechanical licenses in order to make and sell records. If you are funding the recording of your song or album then you will typically retain ownership of the master in addition to the composition.

Synchronization Licenses: the right to use your composition in timed synchronization with visual images. Examples: songs used in commercials, TV shows, and movies. It’s important to remember that a license to use both the composition and master is required for a synch agreement so if you own a song outright then you’ll double up on this opportunities.

It is worth noting that the fees range wildly for these various licenses but if someone requests permission to use your music then you should ask for a fee. Occasionally the expected exposure of a usage may be worth waiving a fee altogether but even in those instances it is plausible to get even a small licensing fee as well. It is common for artists to legally transfer copyright to someone else temporarily/conditionally so that this entity (e.g. publishers) may act as agent on the artists’ behalf. This is only advisable in a situation where the entity is likely to generate opportunities for you that you would otherwise miss.

Call J. Cutler Law Today

At J. Cutler Law, we offer free consultations for you, your band, and/or your business. We can review licensing contracts to ensure you are getting a fair fee and avoiding any problematic agreements. Call us today for a free consultation at (801) 618-4469 or contact us online.