Copywrought: Music Clearances

The process of trying to get music clearance for a song for use in film has truly traumatised me. It was my fault really. But now that I am the wiser and have aged 10 years over one weekend, there are things I'd like to share. 

So I knew the basics of music copyright and licensing, you need to clear it for music (composition), lyrics and sound recording. In many cases the one publisher owns the copyright for both music and lyrics and a record company will own the recording. To use a cover of the song in a film, only the license from the publisher needs to be cleared.

I was under some unfounded and silly assumption that we were going to record our own cover of the song.  And because of that I thought it wouldn't be too much of a hassle to negotiate the publishing license. On top of that, I thought our deadline was in early December, when really if I had used my brain - picture lock off for the film was October and therefore had to have both master recording and publisher's licenses sorted so I could credit the song correctly. 

You hear about many television shows, films, games, etc. not being able to release their DVD box sets and so on because of copyright issues, and shows having to cut down on their music usage because of budget restrictions, but I never really understood how difficult it is until I experienced it first hand. Daria couldn't find a way to release their DVD sets for years because of all the copyrighted music they were allowed to broadcast because of MTV but not allowed to distribute for home video. Even in the end, their release now has generic 90s rock over all the songs that are's just so sad and not the same. In retrospect it made sense, how could the process be easy even when the producers of popular, internationally-distributed shows had to make sacrifices. So this is what I learnt from a weekend of cold sweat and panic:

  1. Firstly, don't expect any song to be cheap and easily accessible just because it's not as popular anymore or obscure. Chances are there will be a large music company who has swallowed up smaller ones and placed a dragon in front of your obscure song (that is not to say that the people who work there are dragons, they are actually the most patient and understanding poor souls I've annoyed with my unreasonable requests and pleading). What counts is how much of the song you plan to use, the territory, period of license and what you want to use it for. 
    To give you an idea, the quotes I got to use a song worldwide in film festivals only and for a license period of 2-3 years were $500 per 30 seconds of the song. Please take my arm and leg. That was just for the music and lyrics.
    If we had the money to throw at it, the music budget would have turned out to be a third of the entire production budget. Is it worth it?
  2. Start early. It is never too early. As soon as you know you can use and afford the song - great. Rest easy.You've reached the castle. Cut the edit to the song. 
    When you know you can't have it - not so good. But you'll have time to mope and get over the fact the song was perfect, move on and find something else second best which you can cut the edit to. 
    But when you leave it last minute - ahem. You don't have time to find another song and nothing quite fits, because depending on your workflow the picture is locked off the way it is, then you're stuck trying to find a song. ANY song with the right tempo, feel and lyrics. Restrictions everywhere. Tears.
  3. Which leads me to avoid specifying a song in the script unless the story has reference to it specifically or you're already 100% sure you can have it.
  4. Don't trust or any internet site that says something is in the public domain. Especially if you are not from the US. After hours and hours or research and trying to understand lawyer jargon in Copyright Acts I've learnt that just because works published prior to 1923 in the US are in public domain does NOT mean it is in Australia and other countries. In Aus, if the composer/writer of a published work hasn't been dead for 70 years the work is still in copyright and you still have to pay money. Period. No exceptions. Even if the song is in public domain in the country it originated from. Yes, it's ridiculous. 

The one piece of consolation is that no one will ever know that there was a better song that fit the bill. They will only see what you put in front of them, so no need to throw yourself into the river. Crying one is enough!