Using music in commercials is not as simple as just paying your ASCAP, BMI and SESAC royalties.  While many broadcasters think that paying these royalties is enough to give them the rights to do anything they want with music on their stations, it does not.  The payments to these Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) only cover the right to publicly perform music, i.e. to broadcast it.  They do not give you the right to take the music and "synchronize" it with other words or video material, e.g.  you cannot put music in a recorded commercial or otherwise permanently fix it into a recorded audio or video production.  Instead, to make such a production, the producer needs to get the rights to both the underlying musical composition (the words and musical notes) and, if you are planning to use a particular recording of a song, the rights to use that particular recording ( the "sound recording" or "master recording").  Getting these rights may very well require that you deal both with the record company or performing artist whose recording you plan to use, and the publishing company that represents the composer of the music.  And, as some artists may have concerns about having their music used to pitch some products, getting the rights to that artist’s version of a particular song may not be easy. 

Even using the tune of a familiar song in an advertisement, with different words, is not permitted without getting the rights to do so from the publishing company.  A copyright holder in a musical composition has the right to prepare "derivative works" of that composition.  A derivative work is one that uses the original copyrighted material, but changes it somehow – like putting new words to an old tune.  Many think that "fair use" permits the making of a parody of a song, so they are allowed to use the tune as long as they produce a new version that is funny.  However, in the copyright world, fair use is not that simple.  A parody, to allow use of the original tune, must be making commentary or criticism of the original song.  Being independently funny or amusing, or otherwise dealing with some independent social or political issue, does not give you the right to use the music without securing permission from the composer of the music first.  A recent story in the Hollywood reporter’s legal blog, THR,esq.com, told the story of a Congressional candidate, Joe Walsh, who thought that it would be cute to use the music of former Eagle Joe Walsh, to make fun of Democratic politicians.  As set out in that story, Eagle Joe Walsh’s attorney did not find the campaign song very funny, and sent a very strong letter objecting to that use (the LA Times site had at one point had a link to a video of a band playing the candidate’s version of the Joe Walsh song "Walk Away", but it now says that the video has been taken down due to a copyright objection). Don’t let your station be the recipient of such a letter – get the rights to use music in commercials or other productions. 


Continue Reading Using Music in Advertising or In a Video Production? Secure the Necessary Rights – ASCAP, BMI and SESAC Licenses Are Not Enough

The Stephen Colbert Christmas Special begins with Colbert sitting at the piano, writing new Christmas songs.  Why?  He explains that, while he likes all of the old Christmas songs well enough, he’d only get royalties if he wrote the songs, so he’s writing his own.  In a few sentences, Colbert explains the system of broadcast royalties in the United States, and the source of the dispute over the broadcast performance royalty that took up much committee time in the last Congress, and is bound to return in the next Congress in 2009.  As Colbert explains, in the US, the composers get paid when their music is played on a broadcast station. These payments come from the the royalties that broadcast stations pay to ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, the performing rights organizations or "PROs" that represent the composers or the music publishing companies that hold the copyrights to those songs.   But, as Colbert points out, the performers do not get paid when they sing the song on the air.

We’ve written about the controversy about whether or not performers should get a royalty when a song that they perform but did not write, is played on the air.  But Colbert seems to have solved the problem about the performer not getting royalties when their songs are played on the air – simply by writing his own songs. And maybe we’ll be singing these songs at future Christmas parties, paying Colbert royalties, and at the same time explaining broadcast performance royalties to future generations.


Continue Reading Stephen Colbert’s Christmas Special Explains Broadcast Performance Royalties