How To Copyright
Article from Making Music, November 1987
The workings of the PRS, MCPS and MU. TB (Tony Bacon) explains.
You've written a song. So how do you copyright it?
In fact you already have. Legally, as soon as you commit a song or piece of music to paper or tape, then copyright exists. It is yours. You own it.
The difficulty might come in proving that you wrote it when you did. Mark Melton, music business adviser with the Musicians' Union (MU), gets asked about this subject a lot when he's out convincing bands they should become part of the union. "Ninety-nine times out of 100 the problem of who wrote what comes after a band splits, deciding who 'owns' which songs, not from someone outside the band accusing you of nicking their song."
But if you're still keen on having a dated record of your creations, there are a few time-honoured methods. You can send a registered letter to yourself with a copy of the song sealed in its dated envelope, or you can lodge a copy of the song with a bank, getting a dated receipt at the same time.
But what happens when your song starts being performed? That means anything from a gig you play at a local pub, through a record of the song being played on the radio, to a video of it being shown on TV.
The Performing Right Society (PRS) collect royalties for members whose music is 'performed', that is (usually) if your records are played on TV and radio, or on juke boxes, in pubs with piped music, or even in a shop that has the radio on all day.
PRS also collects royalties when your music is performed live at music venues, by yourself or other musicians — at each gig you play you should fill in a form that details all the items you play, though in reality you're unlikely to be asked to do this. Insist: it's your livelihood and that of other musicians/writers which is at stake.
All these outlets for music should hold PRS licences, and pay for the music they use. PRS passes this money on to its members — and as soon as your music is likely to be used in this way, you should join PRS. More info from PRS at (Contact Details).
"Insist... it's your livelihood"
The Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) pays royalties collected for its members whose music is 'mechanically' copied — in other words, when your song(s) is made into a record of some sort, audio or video (in the widest senses). Thus they collect songwriters' fees from record companies, film companies and other motley business types, and redistribute them to MCPS members. Again, if your stuff is likely to be used in this way, join MCPS now. More gear from them at (Contact Details).
If you're signed to a publisher then s/he collects the dosh for you, and it's not always necessary that you're a member of the organisations noted. But do check! And do be prepared to go independent and sort these things out for yourself. The split of the money depends on your contract with the publisher — the PRS 'norm' is two thirds to the writer, one third to the publisher.
Mark Melton at the MU (all these initials... that's the Musicians' Union, remember?) outlines another instance when your right to your own work can mean money in the bank if you sort things out proper, like. If you're a member of the MU, whenever you play on a recording session — say your mate asks you to play bass on the single; the producer you met gets you in for a quick solo on a song he's working on; any time at all, in fact, that you get recorded — make sure you fill in a Consent Form.
The MU made an agreement with a record companies' organisation (the British Phonographic Industry, or BPI) and quite a few other record companies not in the BPI to distribute these Consent Forms to recording studios. Filling in the form satisfies legal requirements — in fact the record company is breaking the law if it releases a record and hasn't got Consent Forms from the MU members.
The big advantage comes when that record is featured on, say, Top Of The Pops. Even if you're not dragged into the BBC to wear the silly clothes and the haircut — you're only the bassist, after all — you'll get a fee if you played on the record and filled in a Consent Form (currently about £140 a go). Similarly if a video's made and you don't actually feature in it, you still get a fee when the vid's shown on TV — if you played on the recording and filled in a Consent Form (around £40 for every two plays).
But you have to be an MU member to benefit; it's a sensible thing to be anyway if you're at all serious (ha ha) about this music lark. The MU live at (Contact Details). Join up.
This article copyright Track Record Publishing Ltd, 1987.
Feature by Tony Bacon
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