What Is Music Publishing?

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What Is Music Publishing?

“Music publishing” is a term commonly used but rarely understood, even by those who claim to work in the music industry. However, it is also one of the most complex aspects of the music business, so it’s no wonder there’s so much confusion about it.

Music publishing is all about songwriting. A song (a.k.a. “composition,” including lyrics and melody) has a copyright attached to it that is separate and apart from the copyright attached to the recording of a composition. A composition is a stand-alone work that can be consumed, reproduced and distributed in various formats, such as through sheet music and tabs. More typically, we consume compositions through a recording of it, but the composition and the recording are two distinct works. The right to decide when, how and to whom a composition is licensed or distributed belongs exclusively to the songwriter and is referred to as “music publishing rights.”

A songwriter can enter into an agreement with a person or company known as a “music publisher” to make those decisions for her about when, how and to whom a composition is licensed and distributed. A music publisher is akin to an investor or an agent who champions a particular song, songwriter, or catalog of songs. The music publisher’s job is to get his or her client’s compositions into the marketplace so they can earn and split the fees and royalties generated from the use of that song.

For example, let’s say Jane Johnson writes a song called “I Love You.” Her friend Sally Smith thinks “I Love You” has the potential to be a smash hit, if only they can convince Katie Superstar to record it on her next album. Katie Superstar is a world-renowned pop artist who can sing and dance, but she does not write her own songs; rather, she licenses them from people like Jane. Sally enters into a publishing agreement with Jane which makes Sally the music publisher for “I Love You.” Sally pays a band to record a demo of “I Love You” and gets it into the hands of Katie Superstar. Katie loves it and wants to record it on her next album. That means she will have to pay licensing fees and royalties to Sally, who will then split those fees and royalties with Jane.

There are many types of licensing fees and royalties that songwriters and publishers can earn, including mechanical royalties for reproduction, public performance royalties for broadcast distribution, synchronization fees for audio-visual licensing, and print fees for sheet music publication. Keep in mind, though, these revenue streams are not self-fulfilling, meaning songwriters and publishers have to actively engage licensees, demand payment of fees and royalties when they’re owed, and monitor the terms and usage of each license. An experienced entertainment attorney can help guide songwriters and music publishers through their copyrights, contracts and revenue rights attached to songs they write and publish.

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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