Using royalty free music is a straightforward process most of the time, however, complications can arise due to the complexity of the historic copyright and music licensing laws globally. This article outlines what the common issues are and what can happen.
Many independent composers earn money from royalty free music licensing, but many also register with a performance royalty organisation so that they do not miss out on any potential royalty from their music being broadcast on TV or Radio.
The performance royalty organisation (PRO) is primarily concerned with collecting royalties (charging licenses) to venues and broadcasters who use mainstream music. This makes sense as mainstream music is big business, however, the problem arises when music is being played that is not recognisable as mainstream. The PRO still has an obligation to charge a venue / broadcaster a license fee on the assumption that the music being played may be registered with a performance royalty organisation.
So, what does this mean for you?…
When you use royalty free music there is always a chance that a PRO may try to charge you an additional license if the music can be heard by the public, for example, music on hold, at trade shows, online use etc. For these types of uses, the composer receives a payment from their royalty free music distributor and would not benefit from this additional PRO license. PRO’s pool license fees for public performance and payment to composers is worked out statistically, which means that independent composers usually get little or nothing.
It should be sufficient enough to tell an enquiring PRO that the music was acquired on a royalty free license and according to the lawyers I know, the PRO would have to prove that is in their database. Obviously, if they can recognise it as mainstream music you will have to pay the license fee, whereas, if it is an unknown original piece of music, PRS don’t have an obvious reason for asking you to pay a license.
Typically, an issue arises when a PRO is given the track and composer name and finds it registered in their database. At this point, they will insist that the music user has to pay them a license fee to continue using it.
It is worth noting that when a composer joins a PRO, some of the PRO’s small print has a clause (dating back to the 1920’s) that means the composer signs away some of their copyrights over to the PRO. Technically, this means that a PRO could take this kind of licensing issue to court, but, it is yet to happen. Could you imagine it?… the very organisation whose purpose it is to collect revenue for composers would be suing the composer!
Usually, if the PRO can establish that the music is royalty free and that the composer has been compensated accordingly, they exercise common sense and pursue it no further.
In summary, there is a potential problem with using royalty free music that can be heard by the public, but it never seems to have amounted to more than a grey area in copyright law and an inconvenience to the composer, distributor and end user.
I am interested in hearing your views and opinions on this topic so please feel free to leave a comment.