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Legal Protection for Songwriters

All music made in the UK is protected by copyright law unless the copyright has expired. A copyright lasts for the creators lifetime and 70 years after they die at which point it will be passed on to their estate.

Only where the creator does not have an estate for the copyright to be passed on to does it expire. At this point, the piece will go into the public domain and it will be eligible to be reproduced or changed in any way without the need for permission.

If a piece is copyrighted you will usually be able to find a copyright mark (©) followed by the name of who owns the copyright and the date in which it was made somewhere on the cover or list of information. The creator, publishing company or record company can own the copyright to a piece of music. Music copyright only applies to the melody of a piece; lyrics are protected under literary copyright.

Copyright is important in that it gives the owner the right to choose the way in which they wish their piece of music to be used, changed or performed. If you wish to use a piece of music that is protected by copyright you will have to get the owner’s permission first or you risk them taking legal action against you. Copyright is also a protection which ensures that composers will get paid for the use of their work. In the UK, if you wish to use a piece of copyrighted music, you should contact the Mechanical and Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) who, for a fee should be able to license you the piece of music to use legally.

Performance rights

Once you have obtained your ‘mechanical licence’ you may also need to get performance rights. Performance right is built into copyright and provides the owner of the copyright the right to decide how they wish their piece to be performed publicly. A performance of a piece of music includes if it is played on a TV show, on radio or in any other public way.

A Performance Rights Organisation will represent most composers and in the UK the leading organisation for this is the Performing Rights Society (PRS). The PRS represents nearly 1 million copyright owners in the UK and they work to ensure that composers and producers receive the correct royalties from the performance of their pieces by third parties. The PRS issues licences to music users and requires them to inform them of what music they are playing. By having a PRS licence, the music user can play any piece of copyrighted music registered with the PRS legally.

You only need to pay a performance right fee if you are actually broadcasting the piece of music. This means if you produce, for example, a TV programme, you will not be eligible to pay the performance right fee as you do not personally broadcast the TV programme. The TV channel on which your programme is shown however, would have to pay the fee. As with the mechanical licence, the rate of performance fee that will have to be paid depends on the number of people that will hear the piece of music when it is broadcast.

Most TV and radio stations will pay a large set fee to cover them for a whole year as opposed to having to deal with every individual piece of music that gets played. This is known as a ‘blanket licence’. Despite having paid upfront for all the music that they use, TV channels will still require that production companies detail all of the music used in their show. This must be completed in the form of ‘cue sheets’ which should detail the name of the track, the composers name and where and when in the programme it was used. This will then be passed on to the PRS who will work out how much the composer should get paid. As well as looking at the number of people who are likely to hear the piece when it is broadcast, the PRS will also consider how much of the piece was played.

You have to pay for a performance licence if the piece is shown in public at any time. Regardless of how small you believe the audience who hears the piece will be, you should always get a performance licence; if, for example, you use a 30 second clip of a song on your website, you stand to be sued if you have not got a licence before you put it up.

The majority of agencies that deal with licensing out music are very helpful and understanding as long as you approach them before using their music. If they can see that you won’t be making any money from using their music it is likely that they will let you use it for free or a very small fee. It is always safer to ask first as it may save costly court fees and a large amount of time should the owners of the copyright seek legal action. 

Record Deals & The Music Business

Licence Deals

A licence deal is a deal in which the artist has ownership of the copyright of their tracks and licenses them out to record companies. The licence normally permits the label to make, distribute and sell the tracks set out in it. This type of deal is most appropriate when an artist has already made an album so the record label’s input is minimal. Also as a result of the labels input being minimal, the artist will receive a high percentage of the royalties made from their tracks. With this type of deal, the artist regains in control of how their copyrighted material is used in the future.

Exclusive Recording Contract

An exclusive recording contract generally lasts for a year and in that time the artist will be expected to produce at least one album. With this type of deal, the record company will manage all of the music that the artist makes and will invest in the recording and all other aspects of the artists music, for example music videos. After the contract has expired the record company can offer the musician another contract depending on the success of their previous album.

Development Deal

A development deal is a starting block for artists to get full exclusive deals. With this type of deal, the artist will record a number of singles, instead of a whole album in order to demonstrate whether they will be successful to the record label.

The artist will only receive a limited amount of fees in this type of deal, usually only enough to cover the recording of the singles, however, they will have an invaluable platform in which to impress their label and secure a full exclusive deal.

360 Deal

A 360 deal not only covers the licence of the artists music but any other areas in which the artist stands to make money, for example if they also act. Thus any money that they receive through any aspect of their career will have to be split with their label.


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