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Obtaining Distribution Rights for a Song

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Have you ever wanted to record or use a song but didn't know who to contact for the rights to distribute your copy on CD, stream it, or use it in a film? Not an easy  thing to do.

The first step it to check with a mechanical licensing agency such as the Harry Fox Agency. A mechanical license is what you will need to distribute a copy of your song on a CD or stream.  A syncronization license will be needed for TV or film.  You may also need additional rights from the publisher.

Harry Fox Agency

There are two kinds of publishing rights you need to obtain for a song.  One if for the sound recording. If you are wanting to use a sound recording in a film you will need synchronization rights from the publisher of that sound recording.  This is how the performers and publishers of the recording of a song get paid. 

If you are making a recording of a song that is not written by yourself then you will need the music rights or mechanical rights for the composition.  That is how the original writers and publishers of a song get paid.

How do you find the publisher of a song? If you have sheet music it may be printed on it. An album or CD of the work may also list the performing rights organization the artist belongs to along with the publisher of the song. If not the next step is to conduct a search at one of the performance rights organizations such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC.

Search ASCAP

Search BMI

Search SESAC

If you find the song by the writer/performer you're looking for there then the publisher will be listed. Next you will need to find a contact for the publisher so you can find out from them what is required for you to publish the song.

There are many publishers that may not be listed with a performance rights organization so take care in finding the right one for the song you want to publish.

As for copyright, if the song was published before 1924 then it most likely is in the public domain and will not require a license. Many old folk songs fall into this category. Do your research to be sure. The copyright extension act of 1998 extended copyrights to life of the author plus 50 years after the author's death for general copyrights and to 95 years for corporate copyrights. Again, be sure to do your research.

Remember, even though the original lyrics or melody may be in the public domain, if you are working from a newer version or arrangement that also may be copyrights at a later date, then you still may need a license for that version or arrangement.