What Are ASCAP, BMI And SESAC, And What’s The Difference?

What Are ASCAP, BMI And SESAC, And What’s The Difference?

What are they?

ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are the three performance rights organizations (“PROs”) in the United States tasked with collecting and distributing certain types of royalties on behalf of songwriters and publishers. The PROs are not record labels, publishers, or distributors, nor do they pay royalties on behalf of recording artists or record labels, nor are they a substitute for registration with the U.S. Copyright Office. They are, quite simply, yet critically, a tool for songwriters and publishers to monitor and monetize the performance of their songs (or “compositions,” as they’re legally referred to) in public spaces.

Who should join?

Anyone who writes songs (e.g., lyrics, melodies, etc.) can join one of the PROs and register his or her titles. Anyone who is a designated publisher for a particular song, songwriter or catalog of songs can also join and register their titles with one or all three PROs, in accordance with the membership of their respective songwriters.

What kind of royalties do PROs collect and distribute?

The PROs, on behalf of their member songwriters and publishers, issue public performance licenses and collect licensing fees from thousands of commercial establishments that use music in a public capacity. For example, bars, restaurants, venues, department stores, coffee shops and even airports all play music publicly for the enjoyment of their customers and to facilitate a certain environment conducive to selling their products and services. A license from the PROs grants them permission to do that. The PROs then pay a portion of the fees collected to their member songwriters and publishers who own the copyrights in the underlying compositions embodied in the recorded music being played.

What is the difference among the three PROs?

ASCAP, BMI and SESAC all do the same thing, but there are a few historical and structural differences that may aid in your decision.

ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) is the original PRO in the United States. It was formed as a non-profit organization in 1914 by and for its member songwriters and publishers.

BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) is also a non-profit organization, formed in 1939 as an alternative to ASCAP by and for the broadcast radio and television industry.

Both ASCAP and BMI represent approximately half a million member songwriters and publishers each, and anyone can join online at anytime.

SESAC (Society of European Stage Authors and Composers) originated in Europe is a for-profit organization owned by a private equity firm. SESAC represents approximately 10,000 member songwriters and publishers, and membership is invitation-only.

All three organizations do a great job of providing resources, showcases and support for its respective members, and all three have a physical location in most major markets, including my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia.

However, as a completely neutral party, I do have a favorite. I strongly prefer the original PRO, which is ASCAP, for two main reasons. First, I believe in its structural philosophy as a non-profit organization created by, and for the benefit of, its fellow songwriters and publishers. Second, ASCAP’s repertory search function far exceeds its competitors by allowing users to search for titles using multiple, simultaneous criteria, such as title, author, artist, ISWC code, etc. By contract, BMI and SESAC currently only allow users to search one criterion at a time, oftentimes yielding unworkable search results. Also, unlike ASCAP, neither BMI nor SESAC display the ISWC code, which could help immensely in targeting search results.

Regardless of which organization you choose, it’s important for songwriters and publishers to register their titles with at least one PRO so that they do not miss out on royalty payments when their songs are performed publicly. The PROs serve as convenient clearinghouses so that copyright holders and users of music do not have to execute individual licenses every time a song is used in a public space. Users of music can also help ensure songwriters are properly compensated by adhering to the licensing requirements of the PROs.

Beth B. Moore, Esq. is an entertainment lawyer at The Beth B. Moore Law Firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. Beth specializes in copyrights, trademarks, contracts, and general business consultation for clients who work in music, film, television, theater, gaming, literature, web development and other creative arts industries. You can reach Attorney Moore at beth@bethbmoore.com.

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