Sync Licensing Basics: Part 1
Music is a key element of any piece of media, but is usually the last piece of a television show, movie, advertisement, or video game to fall into place. Time constraints and budget concerns make the process tricky to navigate. However, music can make or break a project; it sets the mood and tone of scenes in our movies and shows. It heightens the anticipation of tense moments, evokes an emotional response in tender scenes, and can influence our perception of media in ways no script, production team, or lighting designer can. Music speaks to us on a profound level, so it’s important to match the right music to the content. A properly structured music licensing deal is an important piece of the production puzzle.
Music Licensing Basic Terms
Before we dive into the particulars of sync music licensing, it helps to know some of the terminology we’ll be using. Copyright is literally “the right to copy.” The copyright holder has five exclusive rights: reproduction (or copying), adaptation (preparing works derived from the original), distribution of the work to the public, public performance of the work, and display of the work in public. For copyright purposes, a publisher is the owner of the copyrighted work. It is common practice for songwriters to form a publishing company as a separate entity to hold the legal rights to their work. A song is a composition, while a particular recording of a song is the master.
The license is the right, granted by the copyright holder or their agent, to perform, reproduce, or broadcast a copyrighted work. There are different types of licenses, but most involve either a flat fee paid for a predetermined length of time, or royalty payments based on copies sold or total revenue. The licensor is the owner of the copyrighted work, and the licensee is the person or entity the work is being licensed to.
Performance is the public performance of a work, whether recorded or live, by the original artist or someone else, even if the music is adapted or changed in some manner. Playing the music in public on a CD or tape is “performing” the work. A broadcast is when a piece of work is played for multiple listeners, such as in a bar or store. It is easy to see how these two terms can intersect, leading to such phrases as “live broadcast performance.”
Performing rights organizations (or PROs) such as the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), and the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC), are large companies that hold the performance rights for copyrighted musical works. “PROs collect royalties for songwriters when their works are performed publicly, such as played on television and AM/FM airwaves, through internet radio services like Pandora, at a club, inside a restaurant, or at a concert.” These organizations license public performance on a nonexclusive basis, using a complex weighting formula to distribute the fees to the respective rights holders. Individual licenses may be negotiated, or the license may be a blanket license. In the US, performing rights organizations commonly act through agents to monitor performances and prevent unauthorized usage, but you may also negotiate directly with the organization rather than going through an agent.
Music covered under a prior agreement is termed pre-cleared music and may be distributed and legally used under specific circumstances. Master use licensing refers to the use of a piece of music as a soundtrack, lead-in, bumper, or background in a motion picture. Synchronization licensing relates to the synchronization of music to moving pictures as background in a movie, television show, video game, DVD, etc.