Why ASCAP and BMI don’t protect your rights as a songwriter
The music business has a lot of moving parts. So many acronyms get thrown around on a regular basis that even seasoned music veterans get confused about who does what.
That’s why you might be unsure about the differences between registering a copyright and registering with a PRO (performance rights organization).
Recently I called up David Spangenberg to get some insight. More commonly known as Professor Pooch, David has been a music business consultant, educator, mediator and contract specialist for almost 30 years.
Pooch explains it like this…
“Copyright is to protect you, and a PRO is to pay you.”
Many musicians have the mistaken idea that registering with BMI protects a song from copyright infringement; or that registering a song with the government will ensure getting paid. Both ideas are wrong. “They are two separate animals. One has nothing to do with the other,” says Pooch.
The Purpose of a Copyright
According to the US Constitution, the purpose of copyright law is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Copyright defines who owns a tangible creation of intellectual property. Copyright applies to many other areas besides just music. All the following forms of authorship are covered under US Copyright Law:
- Pantomimes and choreographic works
- Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
- Audiovisual works
- Sound recordings
- Derivative works
- Architectural works
You cannot copyright a word, title, phrase or idea. That includes your band name or album title. These items are governed by trademarks. You can learn more about the trademark process here.
As soon as you create a tangible version of a song (you write it down or you record it) it is automatically copyrighted to you as the author. But that’s only half the battle. Just because you know you created a song doesn’t mean the rest of the word does. That’s why you must register your new creation with the US Copyright office.
To register a work costs $35. You can register either a song or an entire album of songs for the same cost. Fill out form PA on the copyright.gov website. Once your registration is completed you will receive a date the song was registered and a registration number.
Pooch points out that this number is very important. “If you ever need to assign your publishing rights to another publisher, they will require your copyright registration number. It’s part of an assignment of copyright form.” The number is also used if you ever need to defend your creation in court.
So what exactly are you copyrighting when you register a song? “A song is lead melody and words,” says Pooch. You can’t copyright a riff, chord progression or drum beat as part of the song. A famous example is Andy Sumner’s guitar riff on Every Breathe You Take. Some would argue his guitar part makes the song, but Sting owns 100% of the copyright from that song. Andy is not happy.
Many songwriters have heard of the “poor mans’ copyright.” For years people have talked about mailing themselves a CD and not opening the contents when it arrives. The theory is the postmark will prove the recording was made before that date. The Professor got a little animated when I asked him about it. “Totally worthless! It’s an old wives’ tale. The only thing that protects you is Copyright.gov.”
Professor Pooch also wanted everyone to know that in addition to copyrighting the writing of a song, you can also copyright the recording of a song. “The song and the recording are separate animals. They are separate copyrights, they are separate forms of income and they are separate registrations.” If you’re an independent artist and you paid to record your song, then you own the copyright to that recording. To register a recording use form SR on the copyright.gov website.
It’s a good idea to own as much as you possibly can when it comes to your music. And having the copyright proves your ownership. Pooch preaches income for musicians. It’s his goal for musicians to make a passive income stream. “The idea of owning everything is to never give anything away or sell anything. You license it.” Great advice.
The Purpose of a Performance Rights Organization
The purpose of a performance rights organization (PRO) is to provide intermediary functions, particularly the collection of royalties, between copyright holders and parties who wish to use copyrighted works publicly. PROs such as BMI and ASCAP collect money on your behalf from radio, television and live performances of your song.
Of course the PRO takes a percentage of what they collect to cover their expenses and make a profit. But if you were to try to collect money from everyone who used your music individually it would take you untold hours. And you would miss out on a lot of income.
The first step to getting paid by a PRO is to sign up with one. The two most common organizations in the US are BMI and ASCAP. Everyone seems to have their favorite – kinda like Ford vs Chevy. BMI is free to join as a songwriter and ASCAP costs $75.
If you sign up as a publisher (more on that in a moment) BMI is either $150 or $250. The difference depends on how your company is structured. ASCAP is still $75.
It’s important to know that PROs are for songwriters and publishers. Pooch points out, “Artists and producers don’t sign up with PROs. If you don’t write the songs, you’re not involved with PROs, unless you own a publishing company.”
Once you sign up with an organization, it’s important to register your work with them. “Signing up with a PRO doesn’t automatically get you paid,” says Pooch. You need to tell them what songs you are releasing so they can enter you into their database and begin looking for those songs.
There are many factors that go into the amount of money each play of your song is worth. Radio is different than television. And a theme song on TV is different than background music. But once the PRO finds your song being used they will mail you a check quarterly (or semi-annually, when applicable) based on a complicated formula of venues and plays for live performances.
To get the most out of a PRO it’s important to sign up as both the songwriter and the publisher. Pooch recommends forming your own publishing company and hiring yourself as a songwriter. It may all sound complicated, but in the long run it’s the best way to get the most revenue from your creative works
Professor Pooch had one last bit of advice for independent artists. “There are so many ways to make money from songs. PROs are just airplay.” In his book, The Music Biz Book, he lists ten ways to make money from a song. Pooch suggests educating yourself about the business side of music to get the most you can for your efforts.
David Spangenberg, Professor Pooch, can be found at http://professorpooch.com. He specializes in helping artists and others with the business and contractual sides of music. Having lived the business, in almost every role, he offers real-world advice and services for independent artists and others.