A rough guide to music copyright

Copyright is the traditional method for registering ownership of intellectual capital such as music.

Copyright is important if you wish to own your music. It is especially important if you wish to make money from your career as a music writer. You will need to register the fact that your music is copyright and protect your ownership of it.

In many countries, copyright is automatic. There is no official registration process. You simply attach a copyright symbol to your work and publish it. This protects you to a certain extent if someone tries to exploit your work and make money from it, as long as you are prepared to take such people to court to enforce copyright. You can farm out this responsibility to a third party, for which you may or may not have to pay a fee. Some forward-thinking music publishers also offer a rights management service which will track any royalty due to you from the performance of your work.

The purpose of copyright

"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"

This clause, written in 1789, forms Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution. It neatly encapsulates the two purposes of copyright, to promote progress and to protect rights.

Music copyright

There are two copyrights in music:

  1. Musical Composition copyright (the Work) covers the composition.
  2. Sound Recording copyright (the Recording) covers performance and recording.

Music has, not one, but two copyrights, one for the work, the composition, and another for the sound recording.

The work copyright covers the music in a composition, and, if the music is to be sung, the lyrics as well. The recording copyright consists of fixed sounds, meaning that it includes a specific voice or instrument or a combination of specific voices and instruments.

Copyright is automatic. Once a work is created or a recording is made it is copyright. A copyright symbol, ©, is sometimes attached to music to indicate that it is copyright. This does not of itself make it copyright, it simply reminds others that it is copyright. Similarly, a copyright performance symbol, ℗, is sometimes attached to a recording to remind others that the performance is copyright. In addition, some countries, such as the US, also have a formal process to register copyright.

Copyright is time-limited, it does not last forever. In the US and UK, for instance, copyright expires 50 or 70 years after the death of the owner.

Copyright applies to music that is fixed in some manner. It does not apply to a musical idea. An idea is just that, an idea, it has to be fixed, expressed as music, to make it subject to copyright. Typically, a work is fixed by writing it as a score or by recording it.

Ownership of music copyright

  1. Musical work copyright:
    • Composer share
    • Lyricist share
  2. Sound recording copyright:
    • Performer share
    • Producer share

The work and recording rights can be owned by a single individual or by multiple individuals.

A single person can create both a musical work and a sound recording. This person thus owns 100% of the work copyright and 100% of the recording copyright.

Two or more people may create a musical work. These co-writers share ownership of the musical work copyright between them. The most common arrangement is for a composer to write the music and a lyricist to write the words. The composer and lyricist typically own 50% of the work copyright each.

Two or more people may create a sound recording. Performers, artists, singers, musicians, bands, groups and ensembles of all kinds are co-performers of recordings. They may divide their share of copyright equally or they might do it in some other fashion. The producer of a sound recording may also share the copyright or even own it outright.


Copyright can be assigned.

Assignment is the transfer of copyright in its entirety from an existing owner to a new owner. Copyright is a property right, it can be bought and sold, and assignment is the method for buying and selling copyright. Assignment can be in whole, the entire work transfers to the new owner, or in part, some but not all rights are transferred. Assignment can be time limited or it can be in perpetuity.


Licensing is the main alternative to assignment and is far more common. It allows the copyright owner to retain ownership of the copyright and to authorise others to use it.

A license agreement defines the conditions under which music is licensed to a user by the copyright owner.

An unrestricted licence is one which allows any user to use the music for any purpose as often as required throughout the world in perpetuity.

More typically, a licence is restricted by attaching conditions. These conditions vary considerably but they all do one thing: restrict the use of the music in some way. It may restrict:

  • the purpose for which the music is used;
  • who can use it;
  • the areas of the world in which it can be used;
  • the number of times it can be used; and
  • the duration of its use.

For example, a licence may prohibit music from being used to advertise specific industries or products. It may geographically restrict the use of music to a specific country or continent. A single use licence limits the user to one use only whilst a multiple use licence allows repeat use. An exclusive licence is between the owner and a single licensee whilst a non-exclusive licence allows the owner to licence the music to as many licensees as he or she wants.

A licence is priced differently depending on its use. To complicate matters further, different countries price similar music licences in different ways and some licence prices are set by the state, some by national bodies, and the rest are negotiated in the open market.

Licensing can take a couple of days to sort out or it can be a protracted affair taking well over a year. Not all requests for a licence get approved.

Types of licence

It is rare to find a single music licence. More commonly, there are different types of licence to reflect the different ways music is delivered to a listener. The four most common types of licence are print, performance, mechanical and sync:

  1. A Print licence is a licence to display music in notation on paper or on screen.
  2. A Performance licence is a licence to perform music.
  3. A Mechanical licence is a licence to record and distribute music.
  4. A Synchronisation (sync) licence is a licence for music accompanying visuals.

Print, performance and mechanical licences are audio-only licences covering the use of music on its own. A sync licence is an audiovisual licence.

Print, performance, mechanical and sync licences can be broken down further into specialist licences. For example, there is a type of sync licence, called a Grand Rights licence, which covers music in theatre.

Internet music spans all types of licences. A print licence covers online display of a score or sheet music. A performance licence covers non-interactive audio-only streaming, where the listener does not choose the song. A mechanical licence covers downloads and interactive audio-only streaming, where the listener chooses the music. A sync licence covers streaming audio with visuals in video, film, TV, adverts and computer games.

Master Use licence

A performer (not composer) requires a master use licence, or master licence, for every sound recording, whether a master recording, cover, arrangement or sample.

A TV show, film, commercial, trailer, video, game and mobile app requires both a master use license from the performer, for the use of the sound recording, and a sync license from the writer, for the use of the work.

Music rights organisations

Music rights organisations manage the rights of composers and performers, issue licences to users, and collect and distribute royalties.

There are lots of music rights organisations. Some represent composers, some represent performers, and some represent both. Some cover all types of music licence, others specialise. Many music rights organisations require payment. This can be a one-off fee, an annual recurring fee, a percentage of royalties, or a mix of some sort.

Collective Management Organisation (CMO)

A Collective Management Organisation (CMO) is a national body that manages performance rights by issuing performance licences to users and collecting and distributing performance royalties to composers and performers. A CMO is also called a Performance Rights Organisation (PRO), collection society or collection agency.

In the UK, PRS for Music represents composers and PPL represents performers. In the US, ASCAP, BMI and SESAC represent composers and SoundExchange represents performers. The situation in other countries varies. Some have a joint CMO for composers and performers, others have a CMO for composers and another for performers.

All CMOs manage performance rights. Some also manage mechanical rights and a growing number manage sync rights as well. In the UK, MCPS, part of PRS for Music, manages mechanical rights. The equivalent in the US is the Harry Fox Agency.

A CMO in one country usually has a reciprocal agreement with a CMO in another country to enable a composer or performer to receive international royalties via the CMO in their home country.

Music publisher

A music publisher manages music rights on behalf of a composer.

Traditionally, a music publisher published and sold a musical work in print form as a score or sheet music. Some music publishers still perform this role. Most music publishers register works with a CMO, liaise with other CMOs worldwide to collect royalties, and promote the composers works to performers, record companies and other interested users. Some publishers also take on a managerial role and support the development of a composer. Some stray into the role of a record company by recording a work and making it available for sale or hire.

A composer can assign or licence rights to a music publisher. Some composers assign all their rights to a music publisher, some assign part of them, and the rest retain copyright and licence its use to the publisher. The specific arrangements are set out in the publishing contract, the terms of which vary considerably, with the composer retaining anything from 20% to 80% of royalties.

BMG, Kobalt, Sony/ATV, Universal and Warner/Chappell are music publishers.

Admin music publisher

An admin music publisher administrates music rights on behalf of a composer.

An admin music publisher differs from a traditional music publisher in that it does not usually actively promote a composer, although some do. Nor does it take a share of the work copyright, this remains wholly with the composer.

An admin music publisher takes a commission, typically 10-20% of the gross royalty, and pays the net amount to the composer. The composer can either register the work with a CMO first then work with an admin publisher, or sign up with an admin publisher first and let them register the music with CMOs worldwide.

Audiam, CD Baby, SongTrust, Sentric and Tunecore are admin publishers.

Music production company

A music production company specialises in production music, which is music that accompanies visuals in film, TV, video, advertising and computer games. Production music is also called stock music.

A music production company typically represents composers who are performers and own both the work and recording copyrights. Many operate on an exclusive basis though some offer non-exclusive rights management.

A music production company is sometimes called a licensing company even though it only deals with one type of licence, a sync licence. The company may be a standalone company or a division of a music publisher.

Music library

A music library specialises in licensing print music.

Performer organisations

Traditionally, there is a distinction between a music publisher, who represents the composer, and a record label, who represents the performer. Over time, this distinction has become increasingly blurred because many composers are also performers and, nowadays, many music rights organisations represent both composer and performer.

However, there are still a few organisations that specialise in performer rights.

Some countries have a CMO for performers that is a separate organisation from the CMO for writers. In the UK, for example, PPL is a performer CMO, in the US, it is SoundExchange.

A music distributor, or aggregator, distributes sound recordings to music shops and stores, both physical and online. CD Baby, DistroKid and Tunecore are aggregators.

A music shop or store sells music in vinyl, CD or other physical format. An online music shop sells downloads or streams music to users. Spotify, Deezer, Tidal, Apple iTunes and Amazon Music Unlimited are online music shops. BandCamp is an online music shop that is managed by performers, it sells downloads, takes a commission, and pays net sales revenue direct to the performer.


A royalty is a payment made by a music user to the owner of that music.

There are four main sources of income from royalties. Each source of income represents one of the four main types of music licence: print, performance, mechanical and sync royalty.

Print royalty

A print licence covers the right to sell or rent a score (sheet music), including lyrics and arrangements. It applies to physical scores, and virtual scores displayed online or offline on a computer or similar device.

The price of print music is determined by the rights owner, the composer, or by the music publisher or music library. A music library or publisher typically pays the composer a small percentage of the print royalty, typically 10-25%, and retains the remaining 75-90%, largely to cover the cost of printing physical scores.

A print licence agreement between a composer or music publisher and a music library is usually on a non-exclusive basis and with a fixed term from 3 to 5 years.

Print royalty is significant in classical music and can account for up to half the earnings of a classical composer. The proportion in other genres is substantially less, 10% or so in pop music for example, largely because writers in these other genres rarely notate their music and usually only big hits get notated and then only after they have become big hits.

Physical sales of sheet music are zero rated in the UK for tax purposes but digital sales are standard rated. The 2018 VAT rate is 20% and the VAT threshold is £85,000.

Performance royalty

A performance, or public performance, licence covers the right to perform a work in public. It includes live, recorded or broadcast performance at a venue, event, bar, club, concert or festival. It includes TV, radio and satellite broadcast. It also covers non-interactive streaming over the internet where the user does not choose the music.

A CMO issues a performance licence to a user which permits the music to be performed. The licence is priced as a percentage of revenue or as a fixed price. The CMO receives money from the licensees, takes its cut, and pays 50% of the net amount to the composer and 50% to the performer.

This 50/50 split between composer and performer is common throughout the industry.

There are plenty of exceptions and variations within and between countries. Radio performance royalty is a good example. Some radio stations pay a performance royalty for each piece of music they use, some base payment on sample days, and some digital radio stations are unlicensed and either negotiate prices directly with a record label or pay no performance royalty at all.

Mechanical royalty

A mechanical licence covers the right to record a work and sell it to the public.

A mechanical licence covers the right to make and distribute a sound recording physically and online. It covers vinyl, CD, download, ringtone and interactive streaming, where the listener chooses the music. It applies to the original recording (the master recording), covers, new arrangements and samples. A mechanical licence is used for audio only, the sync licence covers audiovisual video and DVD.

Digital mechanical royalty accrues whenever a listener downloads music from a digital store, such as iTunes, or listens to an interactive streaming provider, such as Spotify.

Mechanical royalty is priced as a percentage of revenue or as a fixed price. The statutory mechanical rate for downloaded music less than five minutes long in the US is 9.1 cents. The formula for calculating interactive streaming royalty is pretty complicated but works out about 0.0007 cents per stream! In the UK, the rate is 6.5% of the retail price for physical, and 8% of the retail price for digital.

Mechanical royalty is either collected by a CMO or paid directly to the music aggregator or record label.

Sync royalty

A synchronisation or sync licence covers the right to use audio with visuals. It covers music accompanying TV, film, video, advert and computer game. It covers audiovisual use online including YouTube, web video, web slideshow, gaming and mobile app. It applies to production music or stock music.

Often, the price of a sync licence is negotiated between the user and the rights owner. However, some CMOs manage sync royalty, such as PRSforMusic in the UK, which publishes standard prices for production music. Music publishers, both traditional and admin, negotiate directly with users on behalf of composers and performers.

A YouTube music video is liable for performance and sync royalties. In principle, that is. In practice, virtually every YouTube video is illegal. Few composers complain because YouTube monetises some (not all) videos and pays writers and publishers through revenue from adverts. The amount of revenue per stream is miniscule, fractions of a penny per stream. Adverts put some people off and users can always block them. Music rights organisations differ in the way they track and collect this income.

DIY music rights management

The main benefit of Do It Yourself (DIY) music rights management is money. DIY means that no fee is deducted by a third party such as a CMO or publisher or record label. The main disadvantage is time. Few, if any, composers and performers want to spend time setting up and running a system to track and collect royalties worldwide.

Practical DIY means farming out the difficult part, royalty tracking and collection, to a CMO or admin music publisher, and doing the publishing and recording yourself.

DIY publishing and recording

Music publishing requires the skill to notate music or to record a work in some other form. Music recording requires the skills to record and produce music.

Music publishing and recording can be done digitally nowadays using a computer or similar device. A music writer can compose music using a scorewriter (notation programme) or a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and can make a sound recording with the same DAW. DIY also involves uploading the music to a website, making it available for purchase, advertising and promotion, and adding a music licence governing its use.

It is rare in practice to publish a work on the internet but it is perfectly feasible. Each work should include a full score and, optionally, a score for each part. Alternatively, instead of a score, the full work can be in demo format (lo-fi compressed audio) with, optionally, lo-fi demos of each part or a selected sample. The score and demo file should include metadata such as the title of the work, the name of the composer, the copyright date, and contact details via a website or email address. The work price should be stated, as should availability and delivery, and an online system provided to collect payment.

It is much more common to publish a recording on the internet. The recording should be in a hi-fi audio format and contain metadata such as the title of the recording, the name of the performer(s) and the copyright date. Price and availability should be stated and either an online system provided to collect payment or a link provided to a third party aggregator who will collect payment on behalf of the performer(s).

Both the work and the recording might also need a licence setting out the terms and conditions including:

  • whether the licence is exclusive or non-exclusive;
  • whether the licence is single use or multiple use;
  • duration;
  • rights assigned to a CMO (eg performance, mechanical and, maybe, some or all sync), the name of the CMO, and a link to the CMO licence(s);
  • rights assigned by the composer (print and, maybe, some or all sync); and
  • important restrictions, if there are any.

Music can be promoted by writing to music publications, music stores (online and physical), music groups and other interested parties, including brief information about yourself, an internet link to a demo of your work, instructions on how to purchase the work, and what to do to get more information.

DIY music pricing

DIY pricing is a challenge for composer and performer alike. Here are some very simple guidelines using 2018 UK prices.

The market price for a piece of music between 3 and 5 minutes long is £0.50-1.00.

A composer takes between one day and one week to write one minute of music.

A composer can charge:

  • By the hour. Try £40 per hour for starters but note that hourly rates vary enormously.
  • Per minute of music. Try £200 per minute for starters. Prices vary widely from £40 up to £800.
  • By percent. Between 5% and 15% of the total cost of a project is fairly typical.

A performer can charge by the hour. The UK Musicians Union (MU) National Gig Rate is £39 per hour.

A future for music copyright

The copyright split between composer and performer is pretty much unique to music. It could happen in the other arts, in principle that is, but in practice, it is rare.

Listeners do not care that music has two copyrights. From their perspective all that matters is the music. The argument that a composition cannot be heard until it is performed and cannot be performed until it is composed seems, to a listener, remarkably like a circular argument about a chicken and an egg.

However, it is unlikely that work and recording copyrights will merge anytime in the near future. But a couple of things can be done to improve the current situation: one is to encourage a market for works, another is to promote covers and arrangements.

There is no developed market for works. In other words, a composer has no easy way to offer his or her wares direct to a performer. The usual route, via a traditional music publisher, simply pushes the problem from one body to another, and may severely limit the composers rights in the process. The other existing route, publishing a score, immediately limits the market to performers who can read music. It would be much easier if a market developed in which a composer could licence or sell a composition direct to a performer. Price would become more transparent too instead of being shrouded in a fog of licence conditions.

Another option is to promote covers and arrangements. A cover does not substantially change the original work, an arrangement does, and contains a significant and original adaptation or modification of the original. The advantage to a composer is that he or she can give permission for multiple covers and share in the performance copyright, whilst at the same allowing a performer to share ownership of the work copyright of a new arrangement. In addition, a composer can work with multiple performers to create multiple covers and new arrangements. The performer has the added bonus of not only retaining ownership of the recording copyright of the cover or arrangement but also sharing ownership of the work copyright of the arrangement. In effect, the performer co-owns the work copyright of the arrangement.

The benefits to listeners are obvious: more works, more covers, and more arrangements of the music they like!