Songwriter’s Due

Before the age of super digital technology, in fact, well before radio and gramophones were in any form of general use, a music publisher and song writer’s main source of income came from the sale of print or sheet music sales. Not surprising when you consider the piano was still the main source of home and pub entertainment, right up to the thirties when the family wireless set took over with five million license holders.

Song plugging was a lot different in the nineteenth century. Prior to World War Two, publishers employed “song pluggers” who travelled round music halls peddling their songs to the great performers of the day.

This was the only way the public could get to know about a new song. The more it was performed on stage, the greater the sale of sheet music. The name of a great artist appearing on the sheet music cover, i.e. “as performed by Marie Lloyd” or “Gertrude Lawrence” gave both credibility and a huge boost to the sales figures.

Sixty years ago sheet music was still the most important source of royalty income. In fact, in order to protect the sale of sheet music, a record wasn’t allowed to be broadcast until six months after its release!

To understand performing rights and royalties we need to go back a short way into history. Prior to the formation of ASCAP in the USA (1918) and the Performing Right Society Ltd in the UK (in 1914), the licensing, monitoring and collection of performing fees were all but non-existent. Sadly, in those days most composers and lyricists were unaware of the scores of music and concert halls performing their songs much less have seen any income.

Stories of a few songwriters being paid a few coins by a vocalist or concert promoter to perform his or her song were not unheard of, but these were rare exceptions.

At the same time there was no shortage of unscrupulous characters eager to exploit performing right laws. In the UK, one of the most notorious characters – Harry Wall, set up his own “Copyright and Performing Right Protection Office” in 1875. He operated by acquiring obscure works generally thought to have gone out of copyright. Then he travelled the length and breadth of the country in search of infringers.

The fact that many establishments where these songs were performed were often charity concerts or penny readings made little difference to Wall, who promptly issued damage claims at £2.00 (about $3.50) a time. Many of these were made against unpaid performers and amateurs. The claims were coupled with a threat of court action against the proprietor, singer and accompanist for infringement of performing rights.

Finally, in 1888, Wall and others who practiced these methods of extortion were put out of business when another Act was passed abolishing the minimum penalty of £2.00 for unauthorized performance.

Interestingly, the French performing society – SACEM (Societe des Auteurs, Compositeurs, et Editeurs de Musique), were active in Britain before PRS. This, however, was mainly to protect the interests of French composers’ rights. An English branch of SACEM was announced by Alfred Moul in 1903 though to what extent British writers benefited is unclear.

In 1908 Britain contemplated a new copyright Act to replace the ambiguous existing laws (Acts of 1882 and 1888) and to some extent keep pace with its international obligations. And so came the 1911 Copyright Act. This was the first Act which actually “tied up loose ends” as it were, in copyright law, not just the right to print but also to define more fully performing rights.

In 1914 the Performing Right Society Ltd was formed in the UK – their first general meeting taking place at 32 Shaftesbury Avenue, London. Over a period of many years PRS set about negotiating, quite successfully, a whole range of licenses. These now enable various establishments to play music in public, in return for a royalty payment. Payments are graded according to how and where the music is performed. Places under licence include concert and dance halls, discos, amusement arcades, bowling alleys, bingo halls, theatres, cinemas, cafes, restaurants, hotels, motels, clubs, public houses, town halls, village halls, offices, shops, factories, skating rinks, fairgrounds, football grounds, exhibitions, stadiums, swimming pools, coaches and buses, ships, railway trains and aircraft, parks and promenades are all places where licenses are issued.

Today, ASCAP, BMI, SESAC (in the USA), PRS in the UK and their overseas affiliates issue licenses to cover performances of music on television and radio broadcasts. Every so often licenses are re-negotiated and updated to meet the constant changes, particularly in technology – internet, satellite TV, cell phones, and so forth.

Initially, however, licensing was far from simple to implement. None more so than in the fields of radio broadcasting and later, television. In the early days of radio, negotiations were extremely tough going. To compound matters, music publishers not wishing to antagonize broadcasters, (whose songs they were already broadcasting frequently, boosted sheet music sales), came down strongly against PRS. Some actually terminated their membership only to rejoin years later.

The 1956 and 1988 Copyright Patents and Designs Acts did much to improve the rights of composers, lyricists and artists alike though, I suspect, certain parts of the last Act are already becoming outdated through rapid advancements in digital computer technology.

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