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DO PUBLISHERS ACTUALLY BUY SONGS?
When you sell a song to a publisher, you are doing just that: selling the copyright to the publisher.This does not mean in any way you are selling the authorship of the song, just all the rights pertainingto it. Although you remain the author, the publisher owns the song and can do as he sees fit inexploiting the composition. The days of publishers "stealing" songs from songwriters are, happily,gone forever (for the most part). Artists are now protected by law in seeing that at least some portionof the money earned winds up in the writer's pocket. What you get over and above this statutory rateis up to your negotiating strength.
HOW DO I (AND THE PUBLISHER) GET PAID?
There is really only one pie to cut up when it comes to royalty payments, but for some arcane reason,the industry sees a song's income as two complete parts: Publisher's royalties and Writer's royalties.The writer is paid his royalties directly from the licensing organization he or she is affiliated with(BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC). The amount of these royalties paid to the Writer are directly related tothe amount of radio and television airplay the song receives, along with other measured publicperformances. The Publisher is also sent an equal amount from the licensing organization. ThePublisher cannot share in the Writer's "performance royalties." Whether the Writer can share in thePublisher's share of performance and other royalties is decided again on the strength of the Writer'sbargaining position. Some Writers may share none of the the Publisher's earnings in a song. Morecommonly, the Publisher will keep all his performance royalties but will split the remaining sources ofincome (mechanical fees, overseas licensing, exploitation for commercials, etc.) equally with theWriter. If you're a popular songwriter and have a steady source of royalty income, starting your ownpublishing company is an option. You are wasting your time and the licensing agency's time by tryingto start a publishing company without any source of songwriting income. If you don't have a song onthe air or selling lots of vinyl/cassettes/CDs, save your money.
HOW DO I COPYRIGHT A SONG?
When you affix the copyright symbol (c) next to your name on piece of music or a recording, youhave copyrighted it. It does not have to go through the Library of Congress to be protected, althoughthis could be a good idea. When two parties fight in court over the authorship of a song, they arealmost always litigating over WHEN a song was written. This is where the Library of Congress canbe of greatest assistance.
For example, you hear a song on the radio by Suzi Dahling, a big star, and you're sure that the hook,or bridge and most of the melody are from a song you wrote ten years ago. Oddly enough, your oldbuddy Johnny Skunkhead, whom you haven't seen in about ten years, is now Suzi's producer andguitarist. You get to court and Johnny and Suzi produce a rough demo of them rehearsing the songtwo years ago, and a Library of Congress Copyright Registration Certificate dated a year ago. Youwhip out a self-released tape from ten years ago and your Library of Congress registration from anumber of songs, this one included, that you sent in eight years ago. You would probably prevail,considering the fact that Johnny produced your tape too. If you are going the Library of Congressroute, keep in mind that the people in Washington don't check each song that comes in to make sureit does not infringe on another's copyright; they just date you claim of ownership. The earlier the date,the better. You can send a "Collection of Songs by Me" to the Library of Congress and copyright it.If, at a later date, someone show interest in one of the pieces, then cull out the one there is interest inand re-copyright it as a single song, establishing in effect two copyright dates. Another advantage toregistering with the Library of Congress is that it gives your song a legal description. It is no longer "ILove My Music," but a song now entitled "I Love My Music" by John Songwriter, Library ofCongress #29283729." This can come in handy when your are assigning the rights to a song to aPublisher. Request Form PA from the Register of Copyrights, Library of Congress, Washington DC20559.
DO I HAVE TO WRITE MUSIC TO COPYRIGHT A SONG?
You do not have to copyright the song in musical notation. The Library of Congress now acceptshome-made cassettes, but be sure that the lyrics and melody are clear and distinct. It never hurts toinclude a lyric sheet no matter what you are submitting.
WHEN AND WHAT LICENSING ORGANIZATION SHOULD I JOIN?
You should join a licensing organization when it appears someone is going to record your song; notbefore. As with starting your own publishing company, the licensing organizations have better thingsto do than try and track a song that isn't getting airplay anywhere. Think publishing only when there isa viable potential for income. There are different protocols to all the licensing organizations, and theyuse different formulas for computing royalties, so you should shop around. Fortunately, you won'thave to shop long, because there are only three. Ask other songwrites which organization they belongto, and how they feel they are being treated. Are they getting paid; does the organization help withcareer advice? Remember too that your friends may not know anything much about the licensingorganizations that they are not members of, so advice from them may be simply hearsay orconjecture. This is a decision you will have to make on your own, and it will affect you for years tocome. If you join and decide later that you chose poorly, fear not: the first year of membership isgenerally considered a trial period, and you can usually switch over without too much trouble (unlessof course you are cursed with success). Look at it on the brighter side; in terms of Writer earnings,these organizations are all about on par with each other; licensing organizations can be viewedsomewhat like apples versus oranges.
WHAT CAN I DO TO PROTECT MYSELF FROM A PUBLISHER ON A SINGLESONG DEAL?
Obtain a reversion clause when dealing with a single song and Publisher new to you. This will makeall the rights to the song revert to you should the Publisher not place the song for commercialexploitation (better get used to the word "exploit") within a certain time period. Be flexible on theamount of time you give the Publisher to place the song. After all, it probably took you a while to getthe song to him; imagine how long it takes the Publisher to get the composition to Suzi Dahling'sproducer. Anywhere between six months and two years is not uncommon.
Again, I would like to emphasize that unless your song catalog is producing income, don't bother toform a publishing company. In the case of a new artist, if possible, assign your first few tunes topublishers with a reversion clause. After you have attained a degree of commercial success, you maythen and only then consider starting your own publishing company. Keep in mind that chasing downthe royalties due you worldwide is not an easy task, and you might be better off, even as a successfulWriter, in retaining a Publisher with the infrastructure in place to pursue your royalties for you. If youhave attained commercial success, your bargaining position with an established Publisher will be allthe more stronger, and the Publisher will probably be more flexible with a Writer that has a goodtrack record.
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