Music Copyright Now


Song Copyright and Performance Royalties

Copyright, which literally means: "The Right to Copy" exists from the moment you create the music and/or lyrics and fix them in some tangible form such as writing it down or recording it.

An important step in U.S. music copyright law is REGISTRATION of your songs with the correct governmental agency.

We will show you how to register your copyrights with the United States Copyright Office through an easy, inexpensive and on-line process. Registration secures your music CD copyright protection as well as digital music copyright protection.

If you wish, start immediately, use the LegalZoom service online registration: 



But, be sure to come back and poke around this website: In about 15 minutes or so, we'll provide you with a working knowledge of copyright law. The songwriter or musician armed with this information is at a distinct advantage. You will be able to debunk some of the myths about how and why a song should be protected. You will avoid common mistakes associated with securing your artistic assets and you will certainly be able to weed out bad advice about song copyright. And, you will better understand the flow of money in the music business.


License To Make A Killing


Song Copyright

An important source of revenue for copyright owners are Public Performance Royalties. If a radio station broadcasts your song they need a license. Money from the purchase of that license must somehow be paid to you as the writer of the song. Nightclubs and performance venues, whether large or small, need a license to play your music. Anyone providing a venue where your music is covered by other artists needs a license. As the songwriter, you have a right to money from the sale of that license.

When you write a song copyright law gives you a monopoly...of sorts. You have "First Use" rights which allow you to record and release the music before anyone else can perform it. Non-performing writers can "give an exclusive" and select the artist they want to record their song first.

After "First Use" occurs your monopoly of control is relaxed by copyright law. These "relaxations" of  your right to control who broadcasts or records your song are not necessarily bad.

These limits on your control exist whether you Register the copyright or not.

But, even after First Use, you will still hold the song copyright. Therefore, you have a right to royalties for any public performance or "covers" of the song.

How The Songwriter Collects Performance Royalties

Think about this one: How is every nightclub across the country supposed to get licenses from all the songwriters whose music is played by the zillions DJ's every night?

How does a radio station get a license from the writers of every song it broadcasts throughout the year?

Short answer: They don't.

That is, they don't get separate licenses. They pay lump sums under blanket licenses to Performing Rights Organizations (P.R.O.s). These organizations in turn divide up the money to their members.

To collect your performance royalties, you want to be a member of a Performance Rights Organization. It's easy to join. In the United States there are really three choices. For reasons which will become obvious, you can only join one of them.

You might recognize the names of the PRO's here in the United States: ASCAP, BMI & SESAC. But, it is rather shocking how few musical artists know what they really do.

Performing Rights Organizations such as ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC, as well as SOCAN in Canada and PRS in England, collect fees from radio stations, TV stations, cable providers, bars, concert halls, restaurants, shopping malls, download web portals, ringtones distributors, digital jukeboxes, airlines, orchestras, elevator operators, parks and others - basically anyone broadcasting, or using music in a public format. The P.R.O.'s take those fees and distribute it to their members.

Here's how ASCAP explains it on their Homepage:

ASCAP protects the rights of its members by licensing and distributing royalties for the non-dramatic public performances of their copyrighted works. ASCAP's licensees encompass all who want to perform copyrighted music publicly. ASCAP makes giving and obtaining permission to perform music simple for both creators and users of music."

The next obvious question: Who are the members of Performing Rights organizations like ASCAP, BMI and Sesac?

First, there are the songwriters themselves. 

Second, Music Publishers are members. Many songwriters have the own publishing companies, but many do not and for very solid reasons: Music Publishers work full time trying to commercialize the works of their client songwriters. Music publishers may aggressively market songs to big name recording artists in ways their writer clients can not. For the non-performing songwriter, Music Publishers can be very important. In return for their efforts, Music Publishers get a piece of the copyright royalties.

P.R.O.'s protect their songwriter members from getting ripped off by any sleazy publishers. The songwriter's share of the royalties are always distributed directly to the writer, even if you've assigned part of your copyright.

Which P.R.O. Should I Join?

Great question.

It is impossible to rate ASCAP, BMI & SESAC. We will provide a "comparison" here, but we do not  suggest one PRO is "better" than the others.

You should look at the features, see which grabs you, and join that one. Links to all three major US performing rights societies are located at the resources section of this website. Once you join, each organization has forms to register your songs. You may have to pay a small administrative fee. Each Performing Rights society strongly recommends proper Song Copyright Registration be secured for the same works you list with the PRO.

PLEASE NOTE: Signing up your songs with ASCAP, BMI or SESAC is NOT a replacement for proper protection of song copyright through Registration with the US Copyright Office. This should be very clear: To get paid public performance royalties you should join one of the PROs and you should Register the same songs with the US Copyright Office. We apologize for getting repetitive here, but this gets messed up all the time.

 Okay, here's the P.R.O. comparison::::


ASCAP stands for American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. It started in 1914. ASCAP says it is the most effective organization in collecting fees due for foreign performances or broadcasts of your work. (Who really knows!) There are other performing rights organizations in foreign contries and ASCAP has reciprocal agreements to split revenue with them and divide it accordingly to their members. Obviously, the amount each songwriter receives is based on how often their music gets played. ASCAP uses a broad survey method to determine this information.There's big big boku bucks involved. ASCAP collects fees from something like a hundred thousand broadcasters and live venues.This includes more than 11,000 local radio stations, over 2000 colleges, over 2000 web sites, over 5000 concert "presenters", a majority of more than 10,000 cable systems, etc, etc. It will cost you a one time fee of about 25 bucks to join, and there are no annual dues. To join at least one of your songs must be commercially recorded or performed in a venue, broadcast in some medium, or be published and available for sale in some way. It's a pretty low threshold - those are "or"s not "and"s.


BMI stands for Broadcast Music, Inc. It was established in 1940. It also collects for foreign performances through reciprocal representation agreements with foreign societies. Their list of reciprocal agreements is pretty impressive. I did not know, until I went to BMI's website, that the Performing Rights Organization for Burkina Faso is called BBDA: Bureau Burkinabe Du Droit D'auteur.
(I didn't even know there was a country named Burkina Faso, but we lawyers don't get around as much as you musicians.) So, if you go platinum in Burkina Faso, you're covered. More seriously, BMI has no application fees and there is a paperless on-line sign-up system which will allow you to join BMI in about 15 minutes. BMI, just like ASCAP, collects huge money in aggregate for its members, more than 779 Million dollars in 2006. Their data collection system is pretty impressive: BMI combines census and sample airplay data totaling more than 4,000,000 hours, which they say provides "...the most detailed and wide-ranging picture of radio airplay available in the entertainment industry...". (Who really knows.) BMI analyzes TV music through a survey of over 15,000,000 broadcast hours per year.


SESAC is headquartered in Nashville, with offices in New York, Los Angeles and London. As far as number of members it is smaller than ASCAP or BMI. However, this does not mean it is any less effective in securing performance royalties. It's been around for a long time (1930), beginning in the GOSPEL genre but has, as they say: "...diversified to include today's most popular music, including R&B/hip-hop, dance, rock classics, country hits, the best of Latina music, Contemporary Christian, the coolest jazz, and the television and film music of Hollywood