Performing Rights and Wrongs


Standards and Practices for Composers and Songwriters

Payments for public performances of music are divided into halves, with 50% being the writer’s share and 50% being the publisher’s share. The following guidelines refer specifically to the writer’s share of performing royalties:

1. Your name must be on the cue sheet to receive performance royalties.

2. The cue sheet must be submitted to the performing rights organizations in a timely manner. The PRO’s have quarterly cut-off dates for submission, and your money may be delayed if these dates are missed. It is your responsibility to make sure you receive copies of cue sheets and to make sure they are accurate.

3. Your performing rights are never part of the negotiations for a job. Signing a work for hire contract, while standard industry procedure, does not mean that you are relinquishing your performance royalties.

4. It is never necessary to relinquish any of your rights just to be able to submit a demo. Any demo music not used by the producer remains free and clear for the composer to use again.

What are performing rights?

Performing rights is the right to perform music in public. It is part of copyright law and demands payment to the music’s composer/lyricist and publisher (with the royalties generally split 50/50 between the two) when a business uses music in a public performance. Examples of public performances are broadcast and cable television, radio, concerts, nightclubs, restaurants etc.

When music is performed by a business they must obtain a license to use that music and compensate the author (composer and lyricist) and publisher. A film or television composer is going to see nearly all of his or her performing rights income from broadcasts on television. Paying the royalty would be the broadcasters both local and network. Broadcasters can pay for their use of music in one of two ways: they can obtain permission/license directly from the music’s copyright owner (usually the publisher), or they can obtain a license from ASCAP and BMI to use all of the music in their repertories. ASCAP and BMI along with SESAC are the three performing rights societies in the U.S. and once they receive payment from the broadcasters they are responsible for compensating the music authors and publisher.

Most countries in the world have their own performing rights society (usually just one – while we are blessed with three). These societies collect royalties from music users and distribute the money to their members; composers/lyricists and publishers. Nearly every working composer and lyricist has joined one of the three PRO’s (performing rights organizations/society). A composer/lyricist may only join one society at a time. A publisher may join all three. You can switch societies if you like but to do so requires that you carefully follow your societies guidelines.

All three societies have their own unique distribution systems which weigh many factors (e.g., time of day, station weight, underscore, featured performance, audience size etc.) to determine how to value music when performed and how much to pay the composers and publishers. This can and should be a part of how you decide which society is best for you.

—Garry Schyman

Protecting Your Writer’s Rights

All of us who make music our business eventually become aware of certain basic functions, requirements, and assumptions in our business lives. We learn how to copyright our material in order to protect it from appropriation by others. We learn to register our works with our performing rights organization so that, whenever a work of ours is performed, we will receive the proper credit for that performance, as well as the royalty payment to which we are entitled. That is how we can begin to call ourselves professionals. We take care of business.

Early in our careers, we are astonished by the benefits resulting from performances of our works. Later, we may take them for granted. But our families are aware of how we protect them. They are the recipients of income from our performances. They trust us not to sell, assign, or transfer our performance rights to any other individual or group, under any circumstances, at any time. Ever. Those are the writer’s rights; they are sacrosanct, inviolate, off-limits, non-transferable.

Our performing rights organization is our committed partner in protecting our writer’s rights. In describing their respective payment systems, ASCAP and BMI and SESAC include language designed to protect their members. ASCAP’s statement reads, in part: “even in work-for-hire situations, the writer and not the employer will be paid the writer’s share of ASCAP performing royalties.” BMI’s statement reads, in part: “in no case will the writer’s share of royalties be paid to the employer.” SESAC’s statement reads, in part: “ SESAC does not condone coercion of composers to give up any portion of his or her writer’s share of performance income to any third party.”

—SCL Board of Directors