Understanding Music Licensing By Deborah Riehl-William

As an artist, when you copyright your music, there are three stages to copyrighting. There is the copyrighting of the song itself, the actual notes or beat, and also the of the recording of that song. Your work must be copyrighted before licensing it for use to others. Material is actually copyrighted as soon as it is written down and recorded. The legalization of it is necessary so that if material is stolen you can take the individual who stole your work to court. There are various forms of licensing within the music industry. Licenses are the contracts that give somebody a specific use of your copyright, in return for money. As an independent artist, you will be in control of who you decide to allow rights to using your music. It’s important to read licenses carefully so that you are aware of the details behind them, because they will describe exactly what is being licensed and for what purpose. For example, you can license music for a commercial, film music, public performance, etc. Licenses also dictate the period of time that someone is allowed to use your material. It’s beneficial to have a specialist lawyer look over the documents with you so that you have a full understanding of it before signing. Many artists make the mistake of signing away their rights and losing future profit, because they didn’t have a complete understanding of what they were signing off on.


There are a few important things you want to remember when negotiating licenses. Firstly, you want to know exactly what potential licensees want to do with your material. Secondly, you want to be sure of the term or period of time they desire to have rights to your music. Timeframes vary with every agreement. However, if you want the licensee to work your music to its full potential anything less than three to five years may prove to be restrictive. You also want to be mindful of the territory of the license you are agreeing to. For instance, will you be enabling someone to use your music to perform one time, or to perform while touring? Decisions like these will determine how much money you can expect to be made. The most important thing to consider when licensing is what royalty rate or percentage is being offered on sales of your music through that licensee. This will determine the amount of money made once your music has been featured in the medium you have allowed it to be licensed for. Typically, artists work with record labels to help them market and promote their music. In this case, money would be split between the label, publisher, composer, songwriter and artist. As an independent artist, you will be in full control of your work and able to receive all of the profit that comes from royalties.


Types of Licenses


The most common license is a blanket license, which is granted my BMI or ASCAP to radio stations. This enables them to play whatever music they like to year round. Instead of the artist having to be in touch with each and every individual, or business that uses their music, these companies keep track to ensure that all artists receive the money they are due. This is one form of public performance rights. Any establishment that wants to play music that will be heard by the general public needs a license as well. For instance, a skating rink that plays music while guests are skating has to pay BMI and ASCAP a specified amount each year. Technically, anyone who is publicly performing music that is not their own should be paying to do so.


A performance license refers to public performance of music, whether it is live or recorded. Usually, an annual fee is paid to obtain these rights. This is needed when public places sing or play songs that are not public domain. For example, if a church were to perform songs at an event for the youth, they would have to have a performance license.


When using music in film or commercials, there are multiple licenses required: a Master User License and Synchronization License. A Master Use License grants rights to an individual to use an already recorded piece of music in a visual work. A Synchronization License goes hand in hand with this type of license, and is required in order for the licensee to use music within a visual project. They may ask permission to use an instrumental version and/or regular version so that they are able to sync the music with the video properly. Sync licenses are used in television shows, movies, commercials, and any other video that requires music. The music publisher usually decides the rate, which in this case, would be the independent artists themselves.


Mechanical licenses are popular as well and important to be aware of. A mechanical license gives the holder permission to create copies of a recorded song, which they did not write, and/or do not have copyright over. In the United States, copyright law requires this whether or not the copies are for commercial sale. Many artists make this mistake and face legal troubles, because they re-record music that has been previously written and recorded without permission. As an independent artist, be sure to always obtain a mechanical license if you decide to use another artists’ music. Also, be sure that other artists who want to remake your music have a mechanical license as well.


Print licenses are more important for artists who may play an instrument and actually write their music. But, it also is relevant in regards to lyrics. A print license grants a party permission to copy or print musical lyrics or any type of written music for self-use or reproduction. A print license is needed for each song being copied or printed.


BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.), ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), and The Harry Fox Agency are the three major companies that handle licensing. For further details, and in order to obtain a license, visit their websites.