Tuesday, September 13, 2011

'Sup With Compulsory Music Licensing?

Dear Rich: I was wondering if you could shed some light on compulsory licensing as it applies to music. I guess what I want to know is why the creators of nondramatic musical compositions aren't granted the absolute control over their work that other creators seem to have. It seems a strange kind of a loophole to me, but as I'm not a lawyer perhaps there is some obvious point that I'm missing. For readers not familiar with copyright jargon, a "nondramatic musical composition" refers to just about every song ever written except To Dream the Impossible Dream (and other songs from theatrical or operatic productions). A "compulsory license" is an arrangement in which permission is not required before using someone else's copyrighted work, provided that a fee is paid.
Section 115A. Under Section 115A of the Copyright Act, a music publisher must permit you to record any song that has previously been recorded and released to the public. In other words, if the songwriters never recorded their song, or if it was played on TV or in a movie but never released on a sound recording or sold as an authorized download, you cannot use the compulsory license. Also, you cannot use the compulsory license if you change the basic melody or fundamental character of the song. For example, a singer cannot alter a song’s lyrics without permission. That said, many people change elements of songs without a problem (as we mentioned in this previous entry). Finally, this license does not include the right to sync a song with a visual such as a video; it's only for the sale of recordings on CD or by download. You can learn more about how to obtain a compulsory license online (or in our Music Law book.)
License or loophole?  There are others who feel the way you do but the Dear Rich Staff is not among them. We've written songs and we've recorded cover songs in our life and having a simple compulsory license program, especially like the ones at Harry Fox and Limelight, allows responsible musicians to pay for the right to record other people's music. It also makes it much easier to get paid for songs. It's possible that in the old days, the compulsory license may have been the way for a cover artist like Pat Boone or Elvis to have a hit from someone else's songwriting. But we believe that a hit is a hit, and songwriting -- whether the writer covers the song or someone else does it -- is usually the most lucrative aspect of the music business.