Help Me “Clear” This Song
L4M has been hard at work. Working so hard that we have neglected the site for a bit. To make up for it we have enlisted the services of our newest member, Lauren Schulz of Troglia Kaplan LLC. Lauren helps bring us back to the basics of Copyright law below. Enjoy!
Everyone from major movie producers to ad agencies to independent business owners all have the desire to incorporate music into a film, commercial, sampling or other production. Unless you have some serious skills to create your own musical composition, the majority of the time you already have that “perfect song” in mind to use in your new spot. While it may be tempting to just borrow a song from the internet or your own library, we all know (or should know) that that would be a big no-no. So how do you go about getting the permission to use that perfect song?
In music publishing world, this is called ‘clearing a song,’ which basically means that in order to use Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in your new commercial, you need to get the okay from its copyright holders. But how do you go about doing this and how do you find out who owns the rights to a particular song? The tricky part is that each song has two separate copyrights and you need to get permission from both of the right holders in order to use it.
The two copyrights are for the rights to the musical composition and the sound recording of the song. The musical composition consists of the actual written music, think notes on a bar staff. It makes sense that this is owned by the writer(s) of the composition, which is then usually assigned to a publisher. Be careful, if there is more than one writer to a song this could mean several publishers might split ownership to the copyright as well. The other copyright is for the sound recording of the song. This is the performance of the composition. This is often referred to as the master recording and the right holders are referred to as the master owner(s). Think of the master recording as a person in a studio recording a track to put on a CD. Usually the copyright to the master recording is owned by the record label, which generally finances the making of the album.
Now that you know about both copyrights, how do you find out who owns the rights to those copyrights, and then ask them for permission to use the song? First, start with the copyright for the composition to find out who the publisher(s) and writer(s) are for the song. The best place to look is the performance rights organization’s (“PRO’s”) websites. The most popular PROs in are ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) and SESAC (Society of European Stage Authors and Composers). The majority of artists register with a PRO in order to receive performance royalties. (see the post below for more discussion on PRO’s). So all you have to do is search for the song or artist on one or more of these websites and it should tell you who the publisher(s) are. If the song does not appear, look for songs on the same album. Although the publisher might be different for the song you are looking for, generally that publisher will know who owns the rights and who you should contact.
The more complicated task is finding out who the master owner is. This becomes difficult because there is no database or website that lists the master owner(s) for each song, so it might involve some trial and error. Remember, the majority of the time the master copyright belongs to the record label, so your first step should be finding out which label produced the album that the song you’re look for is on. A few places to start your search are the U.S. Copyright Office website, Spotify, iTunes, Wikipedia, or any site that includes a biography of the performer. Often the biographies will include which label the performer was signed to at that particular time the song was recorded.
The next step is to contact these publishers and master owners and send a request to license the use of the song. Make sure to tell them the purpose of the use, how much of the song you want to use, the type of media you are incorporating the song with, the length of time your production will be available for public view, and an estimated quote. The quote usually depends on the popularity of the song, the term, and the type of media you are using. For example, an unknown jazz instrumental used for the background of a TV commercial set to air for one year, will be considerably less than Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” used in a commercial distributed on the internet forever. Therefore, pick your battles when you have a strict budget.
Although this process can get discouraging, it is something that everyone who uses music has to do. Once you start getting the hang of it, it becomes easier. Know that the process could take from one week to several months, so plan accordingly. Thus, be patient and in the meantime let us know if there are questions we can answer to help you along the way!
Check out this article by our friend, Chris Rucks for the biggest mistakes people make in music clearance.