Part Eight: Songwriting, Publishing And PRS

Last updated on: Sunday 2 September 2018

Music Rights

Copyright protects both songs and recordings. But how do song rights make money, what do music publishers do and where does PRS For Music fit in? We explain it all…

We talked in Part One about the two sets of music rights – ie the copyright in songs and the separate copyright in recordings. The music publishing sector is involved in managing and monetising the former. It’s called publishing because if you go back a hundred years, you made money out of songs by publishing books of sheet music.

Today there are various ways you can make money out of the song copyright.

1. When a record company makes copies of its recordings onto CD or vinyl, they usually only own the copyright in the master recording not the accompanying song. They therefore need a licence from the publisher of the song giving them permission to make copies of it. Which makes the songwriter and publisher money.

2. When a download store or streaming service delivers a recording of a song digitally they need permission from the owners of both the recording and the song rights. Which makes the songwriter and the publisher money.

3. When a radio station broadcasts recordings of songs it also needs permission from the owners of both the recording and the song rights (except in the US where, because of the country’s copyright law, an AM/FM station actually only needs permission from the owner of the song rights). Which makes the songwriter and the publisher money.

4. If a TV, film or games producer, or an advertiser, wants to synchronise a recording of a song to their video they need to get a sync licence from the owners of both the recording and the song rights. Of course, the producer or advertiser could record a new version of the song, which means they’d then only need permission from the owner of the song rights. But either way, the songwriter and the publisher make money.

5. If a song is performed live in a public space then the promoter of the show (or sometimes the venue) needs to get permission from the owner of the song copyright. Which makes the songwriter and the publisher money.

6. If a recording of a song is played in a public space, then the management at the public space need to get permission from the owners of both the recording and the song rights. Which makes the songwriter and the publisher money.

7. If someone wants to sample a snippet of a track, they need permission from the owners of both the recording and the song rights. Even if they recreate the sample, rather than using the original snippet, the chances are they still need permission from the owner of the song rights. Which makes the songwriter and the publisher money.

8. Some music publishers still publish books of sheet music. Or they might allow a karaoke service or a streaming platform to use their lyrics. Both would make the songwriter and the publisher money.

By default, the copyright in a song is owned by the writer. If multiple people collaborate on writing a song then they co-own the copyright. But it’s for the co-writers to decide how the copyright is split – so if there are four co-writers, do you split it four ways, or does one person get more than everybody else? Whenever you write a song with someone else, you need to agree how the resulting copyright is shared out.

If someone wants to make use of a co-owned song, they need to get permission from each and every co-owner, any one of whom could say “no”. This can make sorting out a licence for using a song very time consuming!

Though remember the collective licensing system we mentioned in Part One. This is where pretty much all rights owners – so all songwriters and publishers – license as one through one organisation, usually called a ‘collecting society’, ‘performing rights organisation’ or ‘collective management organisation’. This way a licensee only needs to get one licence from one organisation, which then collects the money and passes it over to the relevant writers and publishers.

Collective licensing is very common when it comes to music publishing and song rights, partly because of the complexities around co-ownership. It usually applies to radio, live performance, the playing of recordings of songs in public places, the release of cover versions and TV sync.

We’ve already mentioned PRS For Music earlier in this guide, which is the main collecting society for song rights in the UK. Though there are actually two UK collecting societies for song rights: PRS for when songs are ‘performed’ and MCPS for when songs are ‘reproduced’. As a writer, if your songs are being both performed and reproduced, you will have to join both societies. Though PRS and MCPS work very closely together, so you can do all that via one website run by PRS For Music.

In the same way recording artists do deals with record companies based around the copyright in their recordings, often songwriters do deals with music publishers based around the copyright in their songs. Many artists are also songwriters, and many music rights companies own both labels and publishers. But if a musician creates both recordings and songs, they will usually do a record deal with one company and a separate publishing deal with another company.

There are similarities between the record deals we described in Part Seven and publishing deals. In the same way artists do record deals to access investment and services, a songwriter does a publishing deal to access both a cash advance and help administering their copyrights and seeking sync, co-write and original commission opportunities.

But there are differences between record and publishing deals too. For starters, generally when the money is split between the publisher and the songwriter, the latter gets more, even with the major publishers. There is also a big difference in the way the songwriter’s copyrights are ‘assigned’ – or transferred – to the publisher.

With a record contract, the label usually owns the sound recording copyrights covered by the deal outright. But in publishing, the songwriter actually assigns their ‘performing rights’ to PRS, which then has the exclusive right to license those elements of the song copyright. Then, under the publishing contract, the publisher gets the right to directly receive 50% of any money PRS generates.

Meanwhile other elements of the copyright – like the right to reproduce and adapt – are assigned to the publisher, which monetises those elements of the copyright and shares any income with the songwriter directly. This means that a published songwriter doesn’t need to be an MCPS member – the publisher joins the collecting society and is paid any royalties the society collects on its behalf. The publisher then shares that money with the writer subject to contract.

Like with recordings, some songwriters don’t want to assign their copyrights to publishers but do want help managing their rights and seeking other opportunities. Many publishers will provide these services without assignment under what is called an ‘administration deal’ if the songwriter doesn’t want a big upfront cash advance.

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Words: Chris Cooke – Last updated Sep 2018