Here are a few of my random thoughts on the copyright issue.
I love mailbox money. When I get a royalty check, it really does something for me. I wish I had a few published tunes that had been covered by somebody bigtime so I could walk downstairs each morning and get the check from my publisher. So far, nothing, but this is the way I think it’s supposed to work. (I say “I think” because, like everything else that concerns the artist getting paid, this whole process is cloaked in as many layers of mystery and legal obfuscation as can be concocted by the armies of those who would prefer to live off the efforts of others. And, to be fair, some system has to exist to insure that the artist does get paid for his work):
I write a tune and give it to my publisher. He registers it with the Library of Congress and his rights company, BMI. He markets the tune to Mr. Big, who decides to cover it. Mr. Big’s business office applies to Harry Fox for a license to record the tune. Harry Fox eventually issues the license; Mr. Big records the tune and sells a million copies.
Every time Mr. Big’s record company sells a copy of the record, it pays Harry Fox seven cents (or so). This is the Federally mandated “Mechanical royalty.” Fox keeps a few cents and sends the publisher the rest. The publisher keeps half and sends the other half to my mailbox.
Every time Mr. Big’s record plays on the air, BMI tracks it and sends my publisher periodic royalty checks. My publisher keeps half the money and sends me the other half. These are “Artist’s royalties,” or “Writer’s royalties.”
Now I’m the record company and I want to reissue some old records of mine that are no longer available through the company’s current catalog. I go to the label and ask for permission to do so. They can’t find the original contract, but they assume they still own the worldwide and universal rights in perpetuity. They want a flat fee (typically thousands of dollars) to give me a time-bounded lease on the piece for reissue. Plus, I have to pay them an additional rate on a per-piece-sold basis. Plus, I have to track sales and remit the Mechanicals to Harry Fox.
If I want to issue a new recording in any number less than one thousand pieces, I have to prepay Harry Fox for the Mechanicals on any licensed material (covers) included on my record. It cost me about four-hundred dollars up front to Harry Fox to press and sell five-hundred copies of By The Water.
I’ve got eleven pieces I’m offering that are no longer available on the market. I project I will sell a total of 110 cds this year. To do this the right way, I would have to apply to BMI for a license. If they can’t discover who actually owns the rights to these tunes, they can’t grant a license. If the Library of Congress doesn’t know who owns them, I can’t get a copyright. Harry Fox will assume someone owns the tunes and charge me four-hundred bucks apiece to ‘pre-license’ the tunes. That’s $4400 to Harry Fox on a projected income of $1650.
Here’s what I’m doing instead. I’m holding the Mechanicals in a separate account. Each time I sell you a cd with ten tunes on it, I escrow $.70. When and if this account reaches a significant amount, I will send the pro-rata shares to each separate publisher. If I can’t find a publisher for a particular tune, I will continue to hold the sums as “copyright control” amounts until a publisher presents himself to me with proof he controls the tune in question.
Instructions for baking a cake with a file inside it and a schedule of Federal Penitentiary visiting hours will be found elsewhere on this site.