Buying the copyright to a song

One of the least understood issues is music copyright. While music legalities are a bit of a minefield and do change from country to country, the basic concept of how music copyright works isn’t particularly complicated. Here’s a question from a customer who heard a song on Youtube and asked us to create a custom backing track of it for him and wants to buy the full copyrights to the song…

Hi Kenny,
I want to ask if it would be possible if I could buy the rights to the song if I find the girls sing it well. I am not a muscician and the rules regarding rights are a nightmare to me.Anyway please tell me if and when it can be done so I can ask the kids to start to practice.

Hi Kola

The price of producing this backing track will be £100 GBPounds. 

Regarding purchasing copyrights to a song, there are two copyrights attached to each piece of music so you will need to purchase both copyrights if you want exclusive rights to a song.

One copyright is held by the performer.

The other copyright is held by the author of the song.

1. The performer
If you wanted the copyrights to the actual recording you heard on Youtube, then the singer who sings that song is the performer. You would need to contact him and ask him if he’ll sell you his performing rights to the song. 

If we create a backing track for you of this song, then we become the performer (i.e. we have played and recorded all the instrument parts that make up your backing track) so you would need to contact us and ask if we’ll sell you our performing rights to the song. 

As it happens, we can offer exclusive peformer copyrights so that you can use our backing track. There is a one-off fee of £500 GBP for this copyright. So on top of the backing track production cost of £100 GBPounds, the total would be £600 GBPounds. If you did this, then we cannot sell that backing track we created for you ever again to anyone else – you hold the performers copyright to that backing track. 

Just bear in mind that this doesn’t stop someone else from going to another backing track company and asking them to create a backing track of that same song though. It just means you’ve bought the rights to our backing track (i.e. our performance of it) so no-one else can use the backing track we made for you except you.

2. The Author
The other copyright is to the author of the song (the songwriter). If you can find out who wrote the song, contact them. They may be willing to sell you the rights to the song. Don’t get your expectations up too high though. Most authors will refuse to sell their song rights to you as they just never know when or where their song may be used in the future. It could get picked up years later for, say, some blockbuster film or TV advert, or by a big recording star and the song rights would become very valuable indeed. Gerry Rafferty was a Scottish singer/songwriter and although his song Baker Street was written more than 30 years ago, it still earns £80,000 a year in royalties. 

So, expect to pay many thousands for a copyright to a song (in fact the author may ask for millions if the song is popular and earns good royalties). 

Another example is the song “Happy Birthday To You”. It was first published in 1935 and earns around $1 million dollars a year in royalties (that’s not surprising – just think how many times a day, every day, all over the world, a movie, a TV station, a radio station, a theatre etc plays or sings the song Happy Birthday To You and you quickly realise why it earns so much in royalties). 

Time Warner purchased the rights to “Happy Birthday To You” a few years back for $12 million. That may seem like a lot of money, but at $1m a year royalties coming in from it they’ve made their money back on the song in 12 years. Considering the copyright on that song doesn’t run out until the year 2030 it was a pretty shrewd investment for them…