Exploring The Issue Of Copyrights And Publishing

Posted by Aaron Davison on Tuesday, September 2, 2014 Under: August 2014

In my last blog post, “Musicians Have Become Prostitutes”, I shared the story of how I was recently offered an exclusive contract from a publisher who wanted me to transfer my copyright to her, in addition to signing with her library exclusively.  This post resulted in more email responses, blog posts and facebook posts than perhaps any of my previous posts.  So I wanted to explore this topic a little further to both clarify some confusion surrounding this issue and to re-iterate why retaining ownership of your tracks is so important.

First though, let’s define what exactly “copyright” means.  If this seems basic to you and you already know this, my apologies, but based on some of the emails and comments I received, there seems to be some genuine confusion. The moment you write a song (or a poem, or article or any form of “intellectual property”) you, by default, own the copyright to that song.  Copyright literally means the right to copy or distribute.  If you wrote it, you own it and of course have the right to distribute it, share it, sell it and so on, however you’d like.  When you “copyright” your songs with the Library of Congress, which is what a lot of people think of when they hear the word copyright, all you’re doing is documenting that you are the owner of whatever you are “copyrighting”.  It’s simply a way of legally proving that you are the owner of the song (in the case of music) in the event that you ever need to.  For example, if someone stole your song and claimed to be the owner, if your music is properly “copyrighted” you’ll have an easier time proving that it is in fact your song.

When a publisher or library takes your publishing income in the context of licensing, which is typically how publishers and libraries earn income, they are essentially taking half of any money that is generated through placements they secure on your behalf.  When a song is aired in television a performance royalty is generated which consists of two halves, a writer’s half and a publisher’s half.  So even if a publisher is retaining 100% of your licensing related publishing income, they are still only getting 50% of money that your placements generate.  This is standard and in my mind it’s fair.  If someone else lands you a deal that you couldn’t get on your own through their connections and relationships they should be paid.  Anyone who disagrees with this probably fails to realize just how much work goes into running a publishing company.  It’s a lot of work and everybody deserves to be paid one way or the other.

However, this is very different than someone asking to transfer your “copyright” and ownership of your tracks.  All publishing and licensing deals I’ve signed in the past have allowed me to retain ownership of my tracks.  I can still sell my songs on CDs, Itunes, Amazon and so on.  I can still hypothetically sell the compositions to other artists or have my songs recorded by other artists.  I can still share my music on Youtube and so on.  They are my songs and I can still do with them what I want.  But if you assign your copyright to someone else you are giving up your right to do these things.  This is very different than sharing your publishing income for placements someone else gets for you.  Someone commented on my facebook page that “I own my shit and I’m not giving up my publishing” in response to my last post regarding my refusal to give someone the copyrights to my tracks, so I wanted to clarify the distinction between these two issues.  Again, these are two different things with very different consequences.

Exclusivity is another issue that there seems to be some confusion about, as far as when to consider exclusive deals and when not to.  I did a great job, I must say, in breaking down the things to take into consideration when signing exclusive deals in my most recent video.  Check that out if you haven’t already.  Aaron Saloman, who I created a course with about how to make money in stock music libraries, left a great quote regarding exclusive deals on my facebook page.  Aaron said:

“Musicians have to start realizing that exclusivity is a tangible benefit we have to offer - that is to say, a "real thing" - and in any other business, when a vendor piles on additional "real things" for a client, they get something for it. I think I used this example in a blog on your site, but I'll say it again: there's a reason Trader Joe's can demand that a company from England makes a cheddar cheese that only Trader Joe's can carry, but a little deli on 14th St can't make that same demand. The cheese company would look at that demand and laugh - they might sell 10 little blocks of cheese a week from the deli, as opposed to 1 ton a week with a TJ's contract. One of those situations justifies being an exclusive supplier, the other does not. Why aren't musicians able to do these kinds of quick calculations?”

I used to have the attitude that as musicians we could sort of figure out this stuff as we went along.  But I’ve really come around to having the attitude that it pays, literally, to be informed.  Make sure you know what’s at stake when it comes to deals you sign.  Take the time to research potential deals and truly understand the implications of what you’re signing.  The future of your music is at stake.

Two great resources

I have a lot of great resources in the online store section on my site.  Two in particular that are related to this post are The A To Z Of Music Licensing, and my newest course, Advanced Music Licensing Strategies.  I suggest getting both courses if you want to explore these topics further.

In : August 2014 

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