Sunday, August 15, 2010

Songs and copyright 6: how to get permission to use a song

We’ve seen that songwriters, music publishers, recording artists, song arrangers, etc. all have copyright over the songs that they ‘own’. We’ve seen how the law works and what you can and can’t do with other people’s songs.

If you want to use a copyrighted song (to teach, record, arrange, copy, perform, broadcast, etc.), how do you go about it?

copyright warning

Office Depot copyright warning by gruntzooki

Before you can use any work that is in copyright, you must first get permission. Often that permission is not obtained directly from the creator, editor, recorder, performer or arranger of the song, but from an organisation that helps to deal with creative rights.

Also, as we saw last week, the original creator may have sold the rights to their work to another person or organisation. You will need to find out who that is so you can ask their permission.

Each country has its own organisations. The rest of this post refers to the situation in the UK.

important UK organisations

The Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) – now part of the MCPS-PRS Alliance, PRS for Music (see below).

PRS for Music (formerly the Performing Right Society) is a royalty collection society that was founded in 1914. As the MCPS-PRS Alliance, it is an organisation which pays royalties to composers, songwriters and music publishers when the music they have created is sold. This includes sales of the music alone such as CDs and downloads, and also products which use the music as a part of their soundtrack, such as films and computer games.

PPL (formerly Phonographic Performance Ltd.) is the company which licenses recorded music and music videos for public performance, broadcast and new media use. The income generated is then allocated and paid as royalties to their record company and performer members.

Music Publishers Association (MPA) is a non-profit organisation representing music publishers in the UK. It exists to safeguard their interests, and those of the writers signed to them.

UK Music is an umbrella organisation which represents the collective interests of the production side of UK’s commercial music industry: artists, musicians, songwriters, composers, record labels, artist managers, music publishers, studio producers and music collecting societies.

who to ask for permission

For permission to:

  • arrange a song – you need to contact the copyright owner. The MPA can help to direct you to them
  • record music – contact PRS for music (MCPS)
  • perform music live – contact PRS for music (PRS)
  • broadcast music – contact PPL and PRS for music
  • play a recording of music in any public space – contact PPL and PRS for music

what does that mean in practice for my choir?

  • If you perform a copyrighted song in a concert, you will need to pay PRS. The payment is usually collected by the venue that you are performing in (if they are licensed). This also applies to performing live for broadcast.
  • If you want to make a CD, you have to first get permission from MCPS who will tell you which songs are in copyright and then you will have to pay a fee for each copyrighted song based on a percentage of potential income from the CD. You should do this even if you are only selling the CD for peanuts to choir members or friends and family (although in practice, many choirs don’t bother!).
  • If you want to arrange a song that is in copyright, you will need to ask permission of the person who ‘owns’ the song (not necessarily the original song writer). The MPA can help direct you.
  • If you want to write a song using text or lyrics that are in copyright, again, you have to ask permission of the copyright owner. In both this and the case above, you may have to pay a fee.

Once you have obtained the right to record or perform a copyrighted song (see above), then you need to protect your rights as a choir in terms of any recordings that are made. Once you’ve legally produced your CD or download, then you will need to protect your rights over someone using that recording to sell, broadcast, copy, etc. PRS for music will be able to give you advice or ask the distributor you use.

if you’re a song writer or arranger ...

There is no need to register a work in order to obtain copyright protection, but there are certain precautionary measures you can take. MPA has a useful guide: How do I protect my music?

You will need someone to administer the rights you have over your work.

  • If you become a member of PRS, your rights will be transferred to them. Whenever your music is performed in public or broadcast, they will collect the royalties for you.
  • If you become a member of MCPS, they will act as an agent on your behalf to administer your rights if someone wants to record your music, and sell or rent CDs, downloads, etc.

further reading

PRS produce a very useful document covering all aspects of copyright law.

Sound Rights is a free online learning resource produced by UK Music, written by professionals in the music industry and music education expert Leonora Davies to answer the national curriculum's new requirement regarding the music industry and copyright.

British Copyright Council is a national consultative and advisory body representing those who create, hold interests in or manage rights in literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, films, sound recordings, broadcasts and other material in which there are rights of copyright or related rights; and those who perform such works.

As a liaison committee and pressure group for change in copyright law at UK, European and international level, the BCC provides its members with a forum for the discussion of copyright matters.

The Copyright Licensing Agency is aimed at organisations which regularly photocopy and distribute documents (such as sheet music). They license organisations for copying extracts from print and digital publications on behalf of authors, publishers and visual creators.

next week

In the final post in this series on songs and copyright I’ll be looking at alternatives to the familiar copyright law: copyleft, public domain, creative commons, etc.

This is the sixth in a series of seven posts about songs and copyright:

  1. Even if it’s a folk song, somebody wrote it
  2. Basic principles of copyright
  3. Different kinds of rights
  4. How the law works
  5. Who owns the song?
  6. How to get permission to use a song
  7. Alternatives


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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