Copyright and Your Band: PRO’s Collect Money! (Part Three)

Part Three has been published, read it below or at SonicBids.comcopyright image

The right to perform your songs is one of the six copyrights that can get money delivered to your mailbox. Live concerts, radio, television, restaurants, and elevators all count as public performances. Every time you or another performer sings your songs in a live concert, or a recording of your song plays in a restaurant or elevator, or as background in a TV show, you are earning performance royalties. The easiest way to collect mailbox money for your songs is to affiliate with a Performing Rights Organization (PRO) such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC. These organizations collect license fees from clubs, arenas, concert halls, universities, restaurants, and more; later they distribute that money to songwriters and publishers. All you have to do is join a PRO, tell them what songs you have written, and wait for your checks to be delivered!

The Best PRO

You can only affiliate with one PRO at a time, so talk to your fellow musicians about their experiences with their PRO before deciding which to join. Although there are many PRO’s worldwide, in the U.S. you can choose from ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. The two largest PRO’s in the U.S. are ASCAP and BMI, some differences between them include the way that they calculate your performance royalty payments.

The payment formulas are complex and change periodically. ASCAP divides the total licensing fees collected by the number of ASCAP performances during the quarter, with some performances earning a higher royalty. Your portion of the licensing fees will be based on the type of performance (themes vs. background, etc.), and the medium (radio, live performance, network vs. local television, etc.) in proportion to how often your songs are performed. Your royalty payments are based on more than just the quantity of performances, a featured performance on a national hit television show will give you more money than being performed on a local radio station.

BMI’s payment formulas are different, with certain types of performances earning a fixed dollar amount. Like ASCAP the value of each performance varies based on type and medium, but with BMI it may also be affected by factors such as the audience size and time of day. Each quarter BMI also pays voluntary bonus payments to certain types of performance areas, such as when a song achieves hit status on national radio. Here is a detailed account of their royalty payment system.

Leaving Money on the Table

While you consider which PRO to join you also need to make sure to collect all the money owed to you. PRO’s divide the licensing money for a song into two parts known as the writer’s share and the publisher’s share. For example, out of each dollar that your song earns in performance royalties, 50¢ goes to the group of writers and 50¢ goes to the publishers. If you have a publisher they will want to collect their share, and will probably register your songs with a PRO themselves, but if you don’t have a publisher you might be leaving money on the table!

If there is no publisher listed for your songs then ASCAP or BMI will keep the publisher’s share, and you will only be collecting half of the royalties available to you. Working with a publisher can have its benefits, especially if you don’t have the time or connections to effectively promote your songs. A good publisher may be able to get your songs performed or recorded by other bands, and may earn you more licensing fees than they will cost you. However, if you choose to self-publish (aka you don’t work with a publisher) make sure to register yourself as a publisher with your PRO so that you can collect both the writer’s share and the publisher’s share. The registration process for publishers is very similar to registering as a songwriter; fill out an application and pay the fee, and you could potentially double your royalty payments.


Each songwriter in your band will need to affiliate separately, you can choose to joint different PRO’s, when you register the songs the organizations will automatically split the payments up. For example, if you and your bandmate co-author a song your PRO’s will send you each a separate check for your half of the performance royalties. Each writer can only be affiliated with one PRO at a time, but you don’t have to remain with the same PRO for life. You can switch PRO’s when your affiliation contract period ends (although this might mean additional fees and paperwork).

ASCAP To join ASCAP as a writer you will need to pay a one-time registration fee of $50 via credit card and provide basic identification information including you social security number. If you choose to join as a publisher you must fill out a separate application complete with a social security number or company tax ID, and pay another $50 registration fee. Make a list of all the songs you have written so that you can register them once you join. Visit ASCAP for details.

BMI Songwriters can join BMI for free, however if you choose to self-publish there is a $150 one-time fee ($250 for publishing companies). The BMI application process is similar to ASCAP’s, visit BMI for details. SESAC The smallest of the U.S. PRO’s, SESAC has a selective application process to affiliate. Instead of filling out an online application you must email the SESAC staff directly. SESAC touts exclusivity and personal service among the benefits of joining their roster. Visit SESAC for details.

Celebrity Affiliations

ASCAP: James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich from Metallica

BMI: Germanotta Stefani (aka Lady Gaga)

SESAC: Bob Dylan

ASCAP also has a great (free) database that allows you to discover the writers (and their PRO affiliations), performers, and publishers of your favorite songs. This information can be vital if you want to do cover songs for your next album, or find out whom you should approach for permission to alter lyrics. Find out who owns the songs you love.


Copyright and Your Band: What is it and how do you get it? (Part 2)

copyright imageRegistration

Although you don’t need to register your songs with the copyright office, registering offers you much more protection in the event that someone else tries to claim them as their own. In order to sue someone for infringing on your copyright you will first need to register the song. Depending on when you register you might be entitled to legal fees if you win the lawsuit. Upon registration your songs will also be deposited with the Library of Congress, making it harder for plagiarizers to claim that they didn’t know your song existed.

In order to register songs and recordings visit the U.S. Copyright office website for details. Once there you can complete an online copyright registration, which will require a form, fee, and copy of the song you want to register. Currently copyright in the U.S. lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. After copyright expires songs enter the public domain and no longer require permission and/or license fees to be performed. But don’t assume that all Public Domain works are free to use, because newer edited versions of public domain works can gain new copyright protection, making it possible for new editions of works by Mozart to earn licensing fees for their editors.

International copyright
Unfortunately there is no such thing as a universal international copyright registration and laws about copyright vary by country. If you want protection for your songs in another country you will need to follow the procedures set by their government.

Simplifying ownership
As a singer-songwriter/recording artist you probably work with other musicians and band members to write and record your songs. Copyright ownership can get tricky when multiple people are involved in the creative process, especially since copyright materializes at the moment you put pen to paper or push the record button. When multiple people are involved in the creative process they may gain joint ownership in the songs and recordings, giving them the right to veto certain decisions about what can be done with the songs and recordings in question. Consolidating copyright ownership will make your life easier.

Working with session musicians. If you hire ringers for a recording, make sure they sign a session release form before you start recording. These forms release the musician’s right to control the fate of the recorded songs, and since copyright ownership can only be transferred in writing, if you fail to get a session release form from a musician they may automatically become a joint owner of the recording copyright. But just because someone isn’t a copyright owner doesn’t mean they can’t share in the economic success of the recording: if musicians are hesitant to sign a session release form you can still offer them a percentage of royalties in exchange for control of the rights.

If you don’t make sure that the band consolidates copyright ownership then licensing and record companies might be wary of making a deal with you. No one wants to chase all over the country trying to get permission from the drummer on track 3 of your demo, and failing to control all of the rights might cause you to be passed over when it comes time to sign the record deal.

Having the talk. Everyone hopes that their band has what it takes to endure, but even the most amiable bands may have members that leave to pursue other gigs or interests. When band members leave they may retain joint ownership in the songs and recordings you created together, which means you might owe departed band members money years after they’ve left, and even worse: you may need their written permission to make a record or publishing deal.

Imperfect copyright ownership (when you do not control all of the rights) can scare off publishers and record companies and generally make your life difficult. Consider setting up an LLC or other business entity to be the owner of the copyrights, with written agreements about revenue sharing and what happens when band members leave or join the group. This consolidation of ownership makes it easier to license your recordings, although as a singer-songwriter you may want to keep ownership of your songs and grant your band permission to perform and record them. As with all legal matters, you should consult an attorney specializing in entertainment law to advise you and help you set up a business entity and written agreements. Although you may be reluctant to spend the time and money early on, remember that it’s much easier to come to an agreement while you are all still friends.

Understanding copyright and licensing can help you have a more lucrative musical career. Copyright is automatically created when you fix your songs in a tangible form, making it vital to consolidate copyright ownership through written agreements before undertaking activities such as recording. Consolidating copyright ownership of both your songs and recordings will make it easier for your band to take advantage of new opportunities to spread your music

Stay tuned next time for more on royalties and how to make money from your copyrights through licensing.


This article is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of any affiliated organizations.


Content originally posted on SonicBids:

Copyright and Your Band: What is it and how do you get it? (Part 1)


Show me the money
Writing your own songs and making recordings are two ways that musicians can literally make money while they sleep, that is because payments from licensing can keep automatically appearing in your mailbox whether you are performing or not. Every time your song plays on the radio, at your favorite restaurant, or as part of a commercial, you (as a copyright owner) can get paid licensing fees. Publishers and organizations like ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, Harry Fox Agency, and SoundExchange all collect license fees and distribute the money to songwriters and bands. Copyright is vital to musicians, and this series of articles will break down everything you need to know about copyright and your band.

What you can copyright
According to the U.S. Copyright Office, U.S. copyright protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. So as a songwriter your song lyrics and melodies are protected by copyright, and as a recording artist your recordings are also protected by a separate copyright. Being granted copyright gives you the right to prevent other people from using your lyrics, music and recordings, but more importantly copyright gives you the ability to earn money from your music.

Your (copy) rights
Copyright actually involves a divisible bundle of six rights that allow you to control how other people use your songs. As a copyright owner you have the exclusive right to allow or deny the (1) adaptation, (2) display, (3) performance, (4) distribution, (5) reproduction, and (6) digital transmission of your songs. And since the rights are divisible, you can allow someone to perform your songs but deny them the right to record them: it’s up to you how your song is used. But perhaps more important than control is the fact that copyright ownership gives you the potential to make money every time someone adapts, performs, prints, makes and sells recordings, and broadcasts or digitally transmits your songs.

Copyright has its limitations, and although you can copyright your songs it does not protect ideas, the titles of your songs or the name of your band. Because copyright is designed to encourage the creation of new works, allowing people to copyright individual words and short phrases could ultimately prevent creativity; just imagine if greeting card companies were able to copyright the phrase “happy birthday!” But don’t be discouraged, your band’s name may qualify for trademark protection. Trademark law is designed to prevent marketplace confusion and can stop other bands from stealing your fans by copying your name. For more details on how to register a trademark visit the website for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

How to copyright your songs
The good news is that in the U.S. if you have written your song down on paper or made a recording of it, known in legal speak as making a tangible fixation, then the song is already copyrighted. In the U.S. copyright occurs at the moment the song is fixed in some way that allows others to read or hear it without you pulling out your guitar to give a live performance. In the U.S. a song doesn’t need to be published to gain copyright: it’s automatically granted when you fix the song in some tangible form.

It is important to carefully choose who you share your song ideas with before you write them down or record them because the author, for the purposes of copyright, is the person who actually makes the first tangible copy of the song, not necessarily the person who came up with the idea. Keep written and/or audio records of your songs and protect yourself! Affixing notice of copyright and registering your song with the U.S. Copyright office can offer you even more protection.

Notice. One way to make people aware that your songs are copyrighted is to affix them with a notice including ©, or circle p in the case of recordings, followed by the year of publication and your name.

© 2013 Jamie Davis-Ponce

This article is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of any affiliated organizations.