Should You Learn More About Publishing?

You know, it’s not an easy decision to be a music publisher when your first passion is writing. My first thoughts were, ‘hey, the publishing aspect is for those who aren’t creative’.  And in some cases, that’s absolutely good.  But a quick read of the basics of copyright law and what publishing actually means to a songwriter had me thinking and researching.  There is too much at stake in the ownership and income pie of this aspect of intellectual property to ignore.  Should you learn more about music publishing??

Copyright law, at it’s very core, is a very simple read.  It’s just that there are so many different contingencies and what-if scenarios that it’s easy to have your eyes glaze over . Unless you’re either a lawyer or extremely interested, it’s easy to give up.

Ok, wait.  This blog isn’t meant to try and explain all there is to know about music publishing, but I’ll tell you this:  The copyright law for the U.S. is found in U.S. Code Title 17 at the Library of Congress.  You can find it all broken into nice little sections in .pdf format at  Or download the entire Title 17 there.  The entire code is continually updated to be relevant to current times, and includes all sorts of amendments in regards to other forms of creation, such as semiconductors.  As it pertains to songwriting, no further explanation is necessary, as an introduction, other than the following three paragraphs.

The U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8 says this: The Congress shall have power…to promote the Progress of Science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writing and Discoveries (emphasis mine).  This says that our founding fathers made sure that Congress could make laws protecting songwriters and other authors.

Section 101 describe all of the definitions of Article 17 of the U.S. Code.  Section 102 tells us that (a) Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.  This says that IF you are the creator of any writing AND the work is expressed in a fixed form THEN copyright protection automatically subsists.  Only one more paragraph, hang with me.

Section 106 of Article 17 says this (I will highlight): Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following:

(1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords; (2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work; (3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending (4) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly; (5) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pan-tomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and (6) in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

Let’s break that down into small words and few of them:  You, the writer, AUTOMATICALLY own a copyright on the stuff you write.  You also own the EXCLUSIVE right to the words in bold above.  HOWEVER, even though you automatically own a copyright, it is highly suggested by the LOC that you apply for a copyright registration so that your work will be supported by them in a court of law should infringement occur.

What this means in practice is that routinely a song writer will sign away at least half of the rights of a song that they wrote (read over half of the possible income generated by the song).  But they have traditionally given away even more than that.  The majority of publishers in the past have included all sorts of schemes and costs that they can deduct from any monies owed you, and suddenly, you are not receiving even 25% percent of the monies generated by your song. What’s worse, some unscrupulous so-called ‘publishers’ and others that want to make a demo of your song are there only to loosen your wallet and give you promises they have no intention of keeping.  Paying for a demo separately is one thing, but just know this:  a real music publisher would never ask for any of your money up front.

A real music publisher will, however, ask you to sign over a certain percentage of your exclusive rights so they can do their job.  The percentages are a matter for another blog.

There are some basics to know about dealing with publishing contracts.  Reading legal lingo is usually no fun, though.  Learn about the basics of publishing and music publishing history in plain words.  One very good book to do so is Music Publishing: A Songwriter’s Guide by Randy Poe.

If you have any specific questions, please contact me at songs at solidwalnut dot com.