Friday, April 06, 2007

Music Rights in Film (Part 1): Using Pre-recorded Music

Music Rights in Film (Part 1): Using Pre-recorded Music
The Director's Chair, December 29, 2006

Filmmakers and producers who wish to use pre-recorded music in their films must first secure the appropriate rights from the copyright owner of the music. The first important point that needs to be understood by a producer is that two separate copyrights exist in the music. One copyright exists in the written musical composition itself, which usually is a combination of both lyrics and music or melody. The other copyright exists in the sound recording that embodies the written musical composition. The second important consideration for the producer is that generally, different parties may own these two existing copyrights.

Typically, a music publisher will own the copyright in the written musical composition, and a record label (now CD label) will own the copyright in the sound recording that embodies the written musical composition. Music publishers (which are often affiliates of the label that own the sound recording of the music) will hold the copyright in the written sound composition for the purposes of administrating the performance rights of the songwriter(s). Accordingly, licenses will have to be secured from both the copyright owner of the sound recording and the copyright owner of the composition.

Three kinds of licenses need to be secured to use the music as part of a motion picture that is going to be exhibited either in theatres, on television, or to the public using other exhibition vehicles such as the Internet. One license that is required from the copyright owner of the musical composition is called a “synchronization license” whereby the copyright owner(s) grants a license to the producer to use the musical composition with the visual images or motion picture. The reason why the license is called a synchronization license is because the producer is coupling or adding the music with visual images, or in other words, the music is being used in “timed relation” or “synched” with the visual images.

Another license that must be secured from the owner of the sound recording that embodies the musical composition is a “master use license”. In the master use license, the copyright owner of the sound recording is in essence granting the producer the right to use and to reproduce, in whole or in part, the recording of the song in the film.

The last kind of license that needs to be secured is a “performance license” because when the music is being played in theatres or on the television while part of a film, it is now being publicly performed. Although, a performance rights license is usually obtained from organizations known as performance rights organizations (PROs), such as SOCAN in Canada or ASCAP and BMI in the United States, a prudent producer should still verify that all necessary performance rights have been secured.


The information in this article is not intended to be legal advice and is of a general nature. Consult a lawyer for advice for any specific situation.

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