Ramon Ricker  

Royalties Are a Good Thing—Part 1: Copyright, Print Rights and Mechanicals

Ramon Ricker
November 5, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

In recent comments that have come to Polyphonic, several of you have suggested an article discussing royalties. Our editorial staff aims to please, so here is the first installment.

- Ramon Ricker

Royalties are a good thing, and you, as a musician, have a better chance of receiving them than the average professional person. The basic concept is that if you create something, it is yours, and you have the right to be compensated if others use it. This right was provided for by the authors of the United States Constitutioni, and it empowers Congress in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8, “To promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” This is the so-called Copyright and Patent Clause.

Without royalties a musician is like a barber. A barber cuts someone’s hair and gets paid for it. The more haircuts he gives the more money he makes, but his financial condition is limited by the number of haircuts he can do. On the surface it’s the same for musicians. We play a gig. We get money. The more gigs—the more money. With royalties, however, the balance changes: we can do something once and be repaid for it many times over. It’s like planting a fruit tree. We put it in the ground and each year it pays us again by bearing fruit. For musicians there are several different ways we can receive royalties—print rights, mechanical rights, performance rights and sync rights. We’ll discuss each of these, but first we have to talk about copyright.


Everything you need to know about copyright can be found at copyright.gov, the official site of the U.S. Copyright Office.ii The site offers useful circulars, brochures, factsheets, reports and studies. You can also check on the status of proposed rule changes and amendments. If you are real hard-core you can download, at no charge, the official, “Copyright Law of the United States and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code, 2007,” or purchase it for $29.50. It’s 327 pages of tough reading, but you can find more user-friendly circulars on the site that will give you essentially the same information. Obviously, there are lawyers who specialize in copyright law, but I’m not in that group. What I will give you here are some basics that will help you protect what you create—your intellectual property.

Patentsiii protect inventions or things, while trademarks protect names, words, logos, designs, etc. Copyright, on the other hand, is used to protect the following categories:
•literary works;
•musical works, including any accompanying words;
•dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
•pantomimes and choreographic works;
•pictorial, graphic and sculptural works;
•motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
•sound recordings; and
•architectural works

If you compose a piece today it will be protected for the duration of your life plus 70 years. Some things relevant to musicians that are not copyrightable are ideas, procedures, titles of songs, slogans and chord progressions.

As the owner of your creation you receive the following exclusive rights, which you may also authorize others to do:

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Comments (Click to Hide)

Thanks for the very informative article Ramon. The scenario surrounding the types and requirements for music licensing can be quite complex.

Another simple option for securing mechanical licenses is through our Limelight service. Designed by musicians for musicians, the utility offers a simple way to clear ANY cover song for physical, digital, ringtone or streaming use. It also ensures compliance and that the correct publishers/songwriters are paid 100% of royalties due.

Would appreciate any feedback of the service.

Michael Kauffman
michaeljoel on November 16, 2019 at 11:22 PM
I'm happy to know about this alternative to that you provide for the tracking of mechanical rights. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.
rricker on December 6, 2019 at 2:25 PM

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