#02: Music Copyright Around The World

Find out how music copyright works on a global basis and some key differences with copyright in the USA.

Every country has its own music industry and its own copyright system. But the music business is a global business…

Your music has direct protection under UK copyright law if you are a British music-maker, or a British company, or your music is published in the UK first. UK copyright law then allows you to control how your music is used in the UK.

However, you will obviously want to control how your music is used in other countries too. And music-makers in other countries will want to control how their music is used in the UK. To ensure that can happen copyright systems around the world are joined up through global treaties.

This means that UK music-makers can control how their music is used – and therefore generate income from their music – around the world. Although quite what controls they have and how they can be exploited will vary according to the specifics of each country’s copyright laws.

The music industry has set up separate collecting societies in each country. Traditionally, music-makers joined their local societies. And those societies only issued licences in their home countries. So, for example, PRS and PPL only issue licences to radio stations in the UK.

But again we have to remember the global dimension. Music-makers want to license their music to radio stations all over the world. And British radio stations want access to music from every country, not just the UK.

To ensure that can happen, most of the societies around the world are joined up through what are known as reciprocal agreements. So PRS and PPL can license something nearing a global catalogue of music in the UK, and UK music-makers can include their music in licences issued by all the other societies around the world.

That said, as music-makers and copyright owners you actually have a choice. You could join every society in the world directly and only allow each society to represent your rights in its home country. Or you could join your local society and give it global rights, allowing other societies to license that music via the reciprocal agreements. There are pros and cons to both approaches, though most music-makers initially go with the latter approach.

In the digital age, as soon as a music-maker puts their music online they have global reach. For many music-makers, the first business partner is a DIY music distributor which will make sure that their music is streaming all over the world.

That said, to effectively market music and manage music rights in other countries, it can help to have on-the-ground support in those places.

To that end, many UK music companies also have offices and teams in other countries. Or they form partnerships with other music companies in those other countries, in order to access local and regional knowledge and expertise.

For music-makers, one of the attractions of working with a music company might be the connections and support it can provide in other markets where they know there is – or might be – an audience for their songs and recordings.

Lots of UK music-makers aspire to find an audience in the US. That’s partly because, in revenue terms, the US is the biggest market for songs and recordings. But also because there are lots of connections – personal, creative and commercial – between the US and UK music communities.

There are lots of similarities between the music industry and music copyright in the US and the UK. Though there are also some differences that are worth knowing about.

Copyright registration
To get full protection under US copyright law, you need to register songs and recordings with the US Copyright Office in Washington.

That said, UK music-makers have basic protection by default without registering any works. But registration becomes important if you ever seek to enforce a copyright through the American courts.

However, most UK music-makers don’t worry about registration until they have music industry business partners who can advise on these things.

Under US copyright law, the controls that come with the sound recording copyright are different to the controls that come with the song copyright. This means that artists and labels currently don’t earn any money when their recordings are played in public spaces or on AM/FM radio stations. However, they do earn money when their recordings are played on online or satellite radio.

Collective Licensing
In the US there are several collecting societies representing the performing rights in songs (ie the equivalent to PRS), including BMI, ASCAP, SESAC and GMR. American songwriters have to decide which society to join.

PRS has reciprocal agreements with both BMI and ASCAP, meaning UK music-makers that allow PRS to represent their rights globally need to decide whether they want BMI or ASCAP to license their music in the US.

The US collecting society for recordings is called SoundExchange. Though it only collects royalties from online and satellite radio. Remember, there are no AM/FM radio or public performance royalties, and in the US the labels directly license TV. As with PPL, both artists and labels join SoundExchange, although session musicians access their ER royalties via another organisation run by performer unions AFM and SAG-AFTRA.

Until recently there wasn’t an equivalent to MCPS in the US representing the mechanical rights in songs. However, at the start of 2021 a new organisation was launched called the Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC).

Fair Use
In all countries, including the UK, there are certain scenarios where people can actually make use of copyright works without getting permission. We sometimes refer to these as copyright exceptions. These exceptions include things like critical analysis, news reporting and parody.

In the US there is a much wider concept called ‘fair use’. People use this term a lot online, but the principle only actually applies in the US. What is deemed ‘fair use’ under US law may be covered by a more specific copyright exception in other countries, but not always.