Clearing Music Rights – just how difficult is it?

cdn.indiewire.comSome things just don’t change. Clearing Music Rights is just as complex as it was 20 odd years ago

This advice was first published in 1992 in the PACT newsletter. I’ve updated the contact details and replaced mentions of cassettes with CDs but other than that what I wrote over 20 years ago still holds good. Don’t forget, if you haven’t time to do it yourself, Musicalities offers cost effective and time efficient clearance services so you can focus on making great content. Call Katie on 01276 474181 or email for more details.

What should be simple, isn’t

The business of clearing music rights continues to present itself as a complex issue. In a simple form, one could break it down into sub-headings of publishing, recording and performers but, in reality, it’s with the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ that the problems arise. Nevertheless, much can be resolved at an early stage if the correct details about the music can be ascertained as this will probably indicate the right people to contact for licences and consents. Always check you have the correct details

The starting point should always be with the musical composition, be it a song or an instrumental piece. If fees are prohibitive or permissions simply cannot be granted then you are wasting your time trying to clear any ancillary rights. The first step is to ensure that you have the correct song title, writer and publisher. This information, which often appears in CD booklets, is also freely available from the PRS (the Performing Right Society Ltd) or the MCPS (the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society Ltd) each of whom have files on over one million musical works.

The PRS Members Queries department can assist in verification of writer/publisher details. The staff will deal with a maximum of six titles over the telephone at any one time; otherwise, you must apply by letter or fax or these days email! They have various specialist departments including a Music Services Area where experts can check if a composition is still in copyright; however, they emphasise that they cannot always identify works from just the artist’s name or the singing of a tune down the telephone! I’ve given a complete up to date list of great reference books and contact details here.

Use industry resources for research

Generally, it is not necessary to ask permission from the PRS for the use of music in television as this is the broadcaster’s responsibility. With regard to music for film soundtrack, the PRS does hold certain rights and you should seek their advice, particularly in relation to theatric release in the USA where additional fees may be payable. However, licences to cover general synchronisation rights are obtainable from copyright owners, mostly publishers, who are represented by the MCPS. With regard to ‘grand rights’, (music composed for ballet, opera and stage musicals), these are controlled by the individual copyright owners whom you should contact direct for permissions. Additional advice may be sought from the MPA (Music Publishers’ Association).

Other sources for music research: music publishing rights are separate from sound recording rights which are mostly owned by record companies. The majority of UK record companies are members of the BPI and/or PPL both of whom can advise on the licensing of commercial recordings and performers’ consents.

Tips when negotiating a licence fee

Because music publishing and record companies change hands from time to time, appoint new administrators or distributors, and make new territorial sub-publishing or licensing arrangements, it is best to confirm the most recent situation with the individual company’s copyright department.

When discussing licence fees, bear in mind that rates for any usage over and above the first thirty seconds may be negotiable. If there is a promotional value attached to a piece of music in your programme, then talk to the contributor or key person involved: handled judiciously, preferential deals can be made or sometimes fees waived altogether.

Is it really out of copyright?

Words of warning: be absolutely sure that you are speaking to the right company about the right song! For example, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Jennifer Rush and Huey Lewis and the News have all had hits with the song entitled The Power of Love: however, the recordings and songs are each different having nothing in common except the title! Never take the chance that a piece of music may be out of copyright. Common misconceptions are with Happy Birthday which is published by EMI Music and seasonal songs like The Twelve Days of Christmas. Although the song is out of copyright, the line “five gold rings” is controlled by Novello & Co. (Music Sales Limited).

Instances where the music is traditional and out of copyright but the lyrics copyrighted and published are: Day 0 (The Banana Boat Song), words by Harry Belafonte and Lord Burgess and Morning Has Broken, words by Eleanor Farjeon.

So called “classical music” is, for the most part, out of copyright but arrangements or adaptations of classical works by conductors and orchestrators may still be protected. Further to this, since the harmonisation of European copyright law in 1996, the term of copyright in musical works was extended from 50 to 70 years after the death of the composer (or last remaining composer in the case of a collabortive work. Therefore, you can never be too cautious in this area so always ask for written confirmations; one piece of paper may save you hundreds of pounds in the case of retrospective claims. However, always remember that a licence is not valid until bought and paid for.

Have a back up plan

One mistake is to limit yourself to only one piece of music for each slot. If licence fees are too high or the item is unavailable, what then? By giving yourself a choice in the first place, more options become available to you. For example, Production or Library Music companies have large catalogues and will assist in helping you to find alternative music for your production.

Equally sound-a-like and/or foreign recordings will generally negate the necessity of obtaining musicians’ and performers’ consents but, as with all music, prices vary so assess each usage on its own merits and the value it has to your production.

Keep great records: the importance of Music Cue Sheets

In the final stage, being meticulous when filling in Music Cue Sheets can avoid repercussions at a later stage. Those that are inaccurately timed are blackmarked by the PRS and sent back to the broadcaster who then has to take it up with the producer. To be clear, composers and publishers assign the performing right in their copyrights to the PRS through the terms of their membership with the Society. The PRS which in turn has reciprocal arrangements with other rights societies around the world, licences its entire repertoire to broadcasters by way of blanket agreements. One of the conditions of agreement is that Broadcasters are obliged to ensure that Independent Producers provide music cue sheets for all programmes where PRS repertoire is included. Accurately completed forms with precise timings are an essential part of the ‘Programmes as Delivered’ documentation and it is this information which enables the PRS to make fair and proper royalty distributions to the composers and publishers they represent. Moreover, for posterity, the Cue Sheet is the final historical record of music used in film and television.



What do you think?


“Ivan was extremely skillful in guiding us through the process of acquiring music rights for our digital programme. From start to finish he advised us promptly and clearly on the steps in the process to clear each of our chosen tracks and acquired the clearances we needed in the very tight timeline we had. I would thoroughly recommend his services.”

Niamh Dilworth, Senior Producer, Unicorn Theatre

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