Ask Dr. Copyright

copyright question Dear Doc:

I write the songs that make the whole world sing. Unfortunately, with all that songwriting, I really don’t have the time to listen to every radio station that plays my songs, every online store that sells them, and every band, chorus, glee club, and lounge act that covers them so that I can collect royalties. I have heard that there are organizations that will do all of that for me, and even sue people who don’t pay up. What gives? I thought that “trolls” were the bad guys, but this sounds like just what us musicians need in order to make a living.

Barry M.

Dear BM:

The organizations you’re referring to are called “Artists’ Rights Organizations” (AROs) and there are three big ones: Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and the Harry Fox Agency (HFA). Each one of these companies is a nonprofit that licenses, collects, and distributes royalties on behalf of musical copyright owners. BMI and ASCAP license public performance rights to venues such as concert halls, bars, restaurants, stores, etc.. HFA licenses “mechanical” rights, which include the right to make CDs, records, tapes, and certain digital products. In addition, there are more than 200 similar organizations worldwide, and many have reciprocal agreements with one or more of the US-based AROs. Not to confuse you more, but record labels also license rights, and they have their own organization, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

It’s interesting to note that none of these companies writes any music at all! Nor do they arrange it or perform it. They just collect the royalties, and when someone refuses to pay up, they bring law suits, relying on the Copyright Law (17 U.S.C. §101, et seq.) which provides, among other things, that they can collect attorneys’ fees, and ask for statutory damages of up to $150,000 per song played or copied. But, I hear you shout, “Last month, Doc, you told us that this is pretty much exactly what companies that are being called “patent trolls” do with patented inventions! They don’t invent widgets, and they don’t make the widgets…they just offer to license patent rights, and when someone refuses to pay the royalty, they bring a law suit in which they demand a ‘reasonable royalty'”.

Yep…exactly! So there you have it. AROs are respected for the work that they do to help musicians make a living by licensing rights, collecting royalties, paying artists, and policing the use of the rights by using the legal system. They are important because, to quote the ASCAP website, “We know that there are many steps between creation and compensation. A music creator is like a small business, and we exist to ensure that ASCAP members are paid promptly and fairly when their compositions are performed publicly.” Now, to quote one “patent troll” website, “Patent licensing can be an effective and efficient way to maximize the profit potential of a patent. A patent license agreement grants a third-party user of the invention (an infringer) permission to practice the patented invention in exchange for remuneration.”

So there you have it. Patent trolls: BAD. Copyright trolls: GOOD.  Go figure!

If you have a question about how to license your intellectual property, give one of the attorneys at LW&H a call. They’re not trolls, but they do understand how to help creative people protect and profit from their creations, whether they are widgets, music, or some other wonderful new thing that will be the next hit.

Lawrence Husick, Esq.