Film & TV Licensing
by Ben McLane, Esq.
Mclane & Wong
There is a major source of income that many songwriters overlook: the use of music in television or film. Television and film producers need material for their projects. Not only is there money involved in licensing music for television and film, the use of a song in either of these mediums can mean widespread exposure. However, a producer will require the songwriter to sign a contract so that the producer can "license the rights". This allows the producer to utilize the material in whatever way the producer wishes.
In the world of film and television, decisions are made quickly and the producer will generally license the song which is the easiest to obtain at the cheapest price. The producer will not use a song until there is satisfaction that all of the rights are "cleared" (i.e., the copyright owner has granted the producer the right to use the song). If there are several songwriters, clearance must be obtained from each. Thus, songwriters need to make sure that the rights are easily obtainable.
The earnings generated from the use of a song in television or film normally come from performing and synchronization rights. A significant portion of ASCAP and BMI (performance rights societies) revenues are collected from television broadcasters (in the United States, motion pictures do not generate performance royalties payable by ASCAP or BMI). These monies are divided up amongst ASCAP and BMI writers and publishers. Therefore, songwriters are advised to become members of one of these societies, and register with them all songs written. A producer will not usually take a chance on using unregistered material because of the likelihood that the rights may not be available. Further, in the television and film business, music is reproduced when it is recorded on the soundtrack for the production. The right for the producer to make such a reproduction is called a synchronization right and the producer must negotiate a synchronization ("synch") license for each composition to be used.
If the song is used in a television program, the amount of money made depends upon the way in which the song is used and when it is aired. If a song is performed in prime time, ASCAP and BMI will pay more money because supposedly more people are watching. Synchronization fees for television are modest compared to film for mainly two reasons: (1) the synch fee takes away from the producer's bottom line profit; and (2) the songwriter and publisher stand to make money from the exposure.
If the song is used in a film, the fees paid for the synch license can be much higher than television for mainly two reasons: (1) films are generally produced on a much higher budget than television programs; and (2) the rights to exhibit the song in all media (i.e., film, television, video) for the duration of the copyright are usually obtained by the producer.
Now, more than ever, there is an abundant need for songs in major and independent films, network and cable television, and other media. Hence, there are chances out there for songwriters to generate revenues and gain exposure for their music; these opportunities should not be overlooked or scoffed at.