The Songwriting Pizza and the Publishing Puzzle

You’ve been playing guitar for a while now and can sing a little. You have been sitting in your room writing songs and have played them to your friends and your band at rehearsals. Your friends love them and tell you they one day will be hits. Your band is keen to learn them and play them at your gigs.

Suddenly you remember you read somewhere that music is a business built on song-writing and you start wondering: 1) how does copyright work and where do I protect my music 2) Who do I need to get my music out there? How do royalties work and how do I get them?

Well, here are the answers:

1)    Copyright is an automatic right of the author. This means that as soon as you make a tangible copy (e.g. a recording of a song, or a transcript of some lyrics) you have copyright. Mere ideas or melodies in your head are not protected by copyright.

The common practice of posting a copy of your material to yourself has nothing to do with securing copyright but it establishes a date on which you created the work. If later on someone uses your material without permission you can prove you created it before them.

In the US, registering with the Copyright Office grants you certain legal advantages (which you would be missing out if you don’t register):

  • Being able to collect compulsory license royalties;
  • Being able to file infringement action for damages and injunctions and recover attorney fees (if you win the case) ;
  • In the event of an infringement dispute in court the burden of proof is put on the party allegedly infringing your copyright.

So now that you have fixed your songs onto a CD and received your registration number (or dated copy) you can start making copies of them, licensing them to publishers or directly to content users and otherwise commercially exploit them.

2)    Publishers; who are they and what do they do?

A Publisher is music industry professional who does the following:

  •  pitches your songs to record labels for their artists to sing and record;
  • pitches your songs to Television, Films, Video Games and Advertising agencies;
  • registers your songs with a PRO (Performance Rights Organization); in The U.S. these would include ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and in the UK it’s PRS (they are in charge of paying out royalties directly to you from broadcasts and your live performances); and
  • works along side with publishers in other countries, called sub-publishers, to help collect your royalties from abroad.

The basis of your relationship with a publisher is the following: your job is to write songs, and to do it well; their job is to look after the business of making money off your songs.

3)    Royalties: Usually, you will receive 50 to 75% from all revenues generated from your songs. Publishers don’t get paid unless they place a song for you; so anyone calling themselves publishers wanting to charge you a fee for pitching your song is a red flag.

But what if you wrote the lyrics and your friend wrote the music?

You and your friend now share 50% / 50% ownership (or whatever percentage has been agreed) and you should have a Joint Song-writing agreement in writing to avoid any future problems and to keep everyone sweet.

A song is a bit like a pizza which you can slice so that you, your song-writing partner and your publisher can all have a piece.

Can I be my own publisher?     

Yes, as long as you are extremely well connected with record companies, television and film production companies, record producers, music libraries and advertising agencies; or have the time and dedication to start building contacts and relationships in the industry.

What do I need to be a professional song-writer?

Keep writing songs and making demos; some will be great while other not so much.

Most professional song writers are familiar with publishing agreements, songwriter agreements, song-writing agreements and production agreements.

By: Leon Luis (Publisher) & Juan Lopez (Legal Consultant) @AvenantLaw

For trusted Publishing contract templates please visit The Music Law Contracts website

Image source: Mike Licht

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