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Copyrights & Royalties
Will Griffin

    The first thing I need to say about what you need to know about copyrights and royalties is that I AM NOT A LAWYER.  I suggest you consult with a lawyer, both about protecting your rights for original compositions and performances, equally as you should consult with a lawyer about paying the copyrights and royalties you will owe for recording someone else's song(s).  For these, you can contact the publisher of the song and you will generally find them very helpful to make sure they get paid for their property. 

    To give you some basic information and sources to inquire further, so that you have enough knowledge to intelligently talk to a lawyer, here is some basic information and links to help you get started.

    First, equally as you would want paid for your original composition or employment, you will need to likewise pay others if you use their work product.  Just as some folks falsely believe that digitally copying CDs and downloads only effects the big rich record companies, it is wrong to think that not paying royalties due doesn't hurt anybody.  Remember also that the publishing and record companies do indeed make most of the money, because they don't pay writers, artists, and musicians what portion of the profits they truly earn.  

    To put it into a perspective that may help you understand why not paying royalties is equivalent to bootlegging CDs, think about how you will feel if you or your investors spend your money to record your project, all of the time you spent developing and producing your project, to then only have it that other people make the money on it (and you don't get your investment back), or it is distributed on-line for free, so that you can't sell your CDs on-line through Amazon, to make the money you need to get the equipment and band necessary to get club and small concert gigs.

    If you wish to have your professionally recorded performance played on FCC licensed terrestrials radio stations, Desktop-Radio.com, and/or Independent-Artists.com, you will need to show that you own the copyrights, or you have notified the publisher/author that you have used their work-product in your recording.  


    Copyrights are issued and registered through the Library of Congress, which means you are dealing with the government, so get ready to do just a little bit of paperwork.

    You will need to fill out the appropriate application, (Form PA for a work of the Performing Arts or Form SR for a Sound Recording) make a cassette tape or CD of the song or songs and mail them along with a check for $30 to the Register Of Copyrights at the Library Of Congress in Washington D.C.   You can do this after the recording of either the demo of the song or if you went straight to a master session and use this as your copy of your work. 

    You will need to include in your package to the Copyright Office the following:

  • An application form (typed or written in black ink) - PA if you're registering a song, and SR if you're registering a sound recording. Note that these Adobe Acrobat forms now have fill-in fields, so you can type all the information in before printing them, a major plus if your typing skills are better than your handwriting. 
  • A registration fee of $30, submitted as a check made out to Register of Copyrights. If you are submitting multiple works in one package, you may write a single check for the total amount.
  • One copy of the work if it is unpublished, and two copies if it is published. The copies may be either written (scores or lead sheets) or copies of your recorded project, whether tape or CD.

    There's a myth that you can effectively do this also by doing what has been called The Poor Man's Copyright", which ultimately describes your financial state, when you've spent money on your recording and you can't prove you own the rights to your work-product.  Mailing something back to yourself and relying solely on the postmark, doesn't officially say that you are the author, you own the publishing and you have the copyright.  However, you do have some degree of defense, with witnesses, if you have recorded a legal union session, in a recording studio, rather than a 4 track in someone's garage.

    For more information, and to download forms, go to the web site of the U.S. Copyright Office. To have forms and information mailed to you, call or write for the Forms at: 
Publications Hotline 24 hours a day, (202) 707-9100, and leave a recorded message, or write: 
Publications Section, LM-455 
Copyright Office 
Library Of Congress 
Washington, D.C. 20559-6000 

    To speak to an information specialist to find out which form to use or to request further information, call (202)707-3000 or (202)707-6737 between 8:30 and 5:00 p.m., EST, Mon. - Fri. 


    In order to get paid for Composer's Royalties for your work-product played on Radio, TV, Movies, Videos, Jukeboxes, Web Sites, and in Concerts & Night Clubs, etc., you need to join a Performing Rights Organization such as BMI or ASCAP

    They are in the business to collect monies from radio stations and others, who are required to log which songs are being played, and calculate on a pro rate basis how much is your share. Artists who record your songs are required to secure Mechanical Rights (unless you sell the songs to them outright), just as you need to do by contacting them and/or their publisher, if you wish to record their songs.. 
To telephone BMI for information, call (615) 401-2724 (Nashville, TN),
 (310) 659-9109 (LA, CA), or (212) 586-2000 (NY, NY) 
To telephone ASCAP for more information, call  (615) 742-5000 (Nashville), (323) 883-1000 (LA, CA), or (212) 621-6000 (NY, NY)

    If your songs are published by a publishing company, or you are an accepted and contracted member of Independent-Artists, then per your publishing agreements this assistance and collection of publishing royalties is being done for you.  After BMI or ASCAP pays your publisher or Independent-Artists, who then in turn shares with you the information and your share of the author (and in some cases publishing percentage) of these royalties with you.

    Once a song has been published, people other than the copyright holder, including you, may produce their own versions under a compulsory license.  In this context, compulsory means the artist covering the song must pay royalties at a standard rate to the copyright holder. Commonly, at least in cases where there are likely to be substantial sales of the cover version, the performer and the copyright holder will negotiate a rate more favorable to the performer (after all, if the performer decides it's too expensive and doesn't release their cover, the author makes nothing). See Circular 73 for more details.  You can find the owner of a song (copyright since 1978) on-line by going to the Library of Congress on-line copyright search.


    The decision regarding on-line royalties rates is recent and although it has emerged from arbitration, this hasn't formally been affirmed by the Copyright Office yet and now doubt will be in dispute and under amendments for some time to come.

    However, here is some basic information to help you get started.

    Webcasting Rates - Library of Congress

    To license your Web Site for Performance of BMI and ASCAP material, follow these links - BMI's Home Page or ASCAP's
Calculator for the ASCAP Online License Agreement  

    To find out about obtaining Mechanical Licenses (the right to create an Audio Recording, or other reproduction) for most popular songs, check out The Harry Fox Agency, Inc.  Many people think that it's legal to post digital audio files of Copyrighted Songs on their Web Sites as long as they are not charging for it. They are mistaken - it is illegal to post Copyrighted Material without permission from the Copyright Owner, and doing so can leave a Web Site Owner liable for Lawsuits and even Criminal Prosecution. 


    Copyrights and royalties are a very complex specialty in law and there are those lawyers who have as the only element of their practice the administration of copyright laws and protection of intellectual property.  To protect your rights, find a lawyer who has experience in the music industry and with these issues.

    To have more information to make a decision on your attorney and to have a sufficient knowledge foundation to talk intelligently to your lawyer, you may find the following to be helpful.

Title 17, U.S. Code, Copyrights - Cornell Law School.
Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998
Recording Artist Royalties
- ASCAP's formula
BMI - Home Page
. - Home Page

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