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About Publishing
Songwriting & Music Business Basics

What does a music publisher do?

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Bruce Phillips, Entertainment Industry Attorney

A music publisher has duties that are both creative and administrative.  Creative in that they look for ways to pitch your song(s), either by “pitching” the song to other artists to record, to advertisers who could use it in a commercial, or to music supervisors who might place it in a film or TV show. 

A good publisher is up on current trends and is able to introduce you to other writers or artists to collaborate with and can involve you with potential projects.

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Big John Platt, President/West Coast Creative EMI Music Publishing

Music publishers also handle the administrative duties of the song. Some of these duties include filing the copyright registrations, and registering the song with the Performing Rights Organizations, The Harry Fox Agency, or any other collection agencies so that royalties can be collected. A publisher will also negotiate fees and issue the appropriate licenses for all uses of music, making sure that the payments from licenses (record companies, video distributors, TV and film producers) are paid on time and accurately administered.  In a nutshell, the music publisher oversees the business of the song.

When is my song considered “published”?
A song is considered “published” when it is fixed (recorded or printed) and distributed in tangible form (CD, MP3, sheet music, etc.) to the public for sale, lease, rental or lending.   A song may also be published when a music publisher accepts the song for the purpose of distributing it to those who may want to record it.

Until an arrangement is made with a music publisher, the writer acts as the publisher of the work and is, therefore, responsible for all of the duties involved in caring for this work.  Since publishing deals are not always offered to all, it is very common that the writer acts as their own music publisher, especially in the beginning of a writer’s career.  Writers set up their own companies and become “self published”.

With SESAC you have a friend in that we can help guide you through understanding your responsibilities when acting as your own publisher.

How do I know if a music publisher is legitimate?
Research! Always check a publisher’s experience and track record. Professional societies such as National Music Publishers Association [NMPA] www.nmpa.org, Association of Independent Music Publishers [AIMP] www.aimp.org, Nashville Songwriters Association International [NSAI] www.nashvillesongwriters.com, and Songwriters Guild of America [SGA] www.songwriters.org  are good resources for determining the legitimacy of a music publisher.

Beware of the “song shark”, a publisher who requests a fee to examine, publish or record your song. No legitimate publisher requires a fee for services rendered.

What is the difference between a Performing Right, a Mechanical Right, a Synchronization Right, a Print Right, a Grand Right, and other rights?

There are a number of “rights” involved in a song that the copyright holder controls.  These “rights” are licensed for use in a public performance, on a CD, in a film or TV show, in print, or on the Broadway stage.  The copyright owner [i.e. publisher(s)] licenses these “rights” to other parties for the use of their song and in turn receive “royalties” (payment) for each use.  The “rights” are as follows:

The Performing Right is the right to have your song performed in public (on radio, TV, live venues, satellite and internet radio, background music services, etc.) and is represented by a PRO, like SESAC, who licenses these rights on your behalf, and then collects and distributes performance royalties to both the songwriter and music publisher of the work. The majority of a song’s income will come from performing rights royalties.


The Mechanical Right is the right to “mechanically” reproduce or distribute your song on to a fixed medium, including records and CDs.  The mechanical right gives you the ability to collect on the sale of a song to the public.  The record company obtains a Mechanical License from the publisher for this use and is responsible for paying mechanical royalties to the publisher for each use. Many publishers utilize The Harry Fox Agency [www.harryfox.com] to handle mechanical licensing grants on their behalf, as well as synchronization licenses (see below).   The record company pays royalties to the publisher who then pays the writer.  If you are both the writer and publisher of a work, then the royalties would be paid directly to your publishing company, for both writer and publisher shares.
The Synchronization Right comes into play when your song is used in a film or as part of a television show.  Your music is “synchronized” to the film, either in whole or in part.  The producers of the film or TV show will negotiate a Synchronization Fee – “sync fee” – and will acquire a license from the publisher to obtain permission to synchronize the music. These royalties are paid to the publisher of the work who then splits the royalties with the songwriter. 
The Print Right is the right to have your song used in printed form such as a songbook or sheet music.  Print Rights are generally handled by a publisher who specializes in this area.

The Grand Right is the right of the copyright owner to perform or license others to perform their song in a dramatic matter, which advances the plot of the production in which it is included (such as a Broadway show).   This requires a license from the copyright owner separate and distinct from, what is commonly known as, the “small” performing rights which SESAC represents (concert and live performances, incidental and background music on TV programs, and radio airplay, just to name a few).

Other Rights: The Sound Recording Performance Right is the right to have your sound recording performed in public (as opposed to the song or underlying composition embodied on the recording).  Currently this right is limited in the U.S. to require that certain digital services --Internet radio, satellite radio and cable TV radio-- pay a royalty for the streaming of your sound recording.  Terrestrial radio is not required as of yet to pay such a royalty.  The Sound Recording Performance Right also allows for performers (both the main performer and background singers/musicians) on the recording to earn a royalty when that recording is used by these digital services.  SoundExchange is the organization designated to collect and distribute these royalties to recording artists and record labels. For more information about SoundExchange go to www.soundexchange.com.  If you are, however, a background singer and/or session musician go to the AFM & AFTRA Intellectual Property Rights Distribution Fund at www.raroyalties.org.  This organization collects royalties on behalf of both royalty artists and session performers.

How are song shares split?
Songs shares are traditionally split evenly between the Songwriter and the Publisher.  For example, there is a 100% total share in a song, 50% of it is the Writer’s share and 50% is the Publisher’s share.  For example:  if a song earns $100 in performing rights royalties, $50 is paid to the Songwriter and $50 is paid to the Publisher.  In many cases, the songwriter is both the Writer and the Publisher, so the songwriter would earn both royalty payments (in two separate checks). 

Some Other Examples:
Co-Publishing: If a writer has a “Co-Publishing” deal where they split the publishing share of the song, the writer retains his writer share and then splits the publishing share based on their negotiated deal.  If it is an even split, then an example of the split would be 50% Writer, 25% Writer’s Publishing Company, and 25% Co-Publisher. It’s important to note that in co-publishing situations, it is likely that the Co-Publisher will collect the entire 50% of the publishing share as the administrator of the song and then pay you your co-publishing split after any advance monies have been recouped.

Collaborations: If you have collaborated with another songwriter, and you agree to split the song evenly, then your song splits would be 25% Writer A, 25% Writer B, 25% Publisher A (on behalf of Songwriter A) and 25% Publisher B (on behalf of Songwriter B).

Splits can get complicated when there are more writers and publishers involved, and they are not always evenly distributed. However, they are based on the 50% Writer share and 50% Publishing share song split.

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