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You write music for TV? Expect to get ripped off!

If you write music for TV, and the production company expects you to sign away your publishing, they are ripping you off. Here's why...

Did you know that TV production companies operate a scam dedicated to paying composers less for their work than they are due? And as a composer you have a choice - accept their unfair terms, or get blacklisted. "You'll never work again in this town."

The way it works is this. Firstly, you need to know that composers are entitled to payments in respect of three copyrights in their work: The performing right and mechanical right in the music, and an additional copyright in the recording.

Firstly the recording. Composers are increasingly asked to provide finished recordings. Are they paid for these recordings? No. So the production company saves expensive studio time. Actually, this is fair since for a long time composers have offered 'packages' that include musician hire and studio time, presenting the production company with their finished output.

But in the other two rights there is a problem. Traditionally, a composer would sign with a publisher who would promote their works. If a production company was interested, then they would pay for the mechanical right to synchronize the music with their images. This would be a once-only payment and would probably be exclusive, meaning that the composer could not use the music elsewhere. The composer and the publisher would share the revenue from this according to the split in the publishing deal.

Then when the program is broadcast, the publisher would receive royalties from the use of the performing right. Once again this income was shared with the composer.

But now, TV production companies do the dirty in two ways...

  • They insist on buying out the mechanical right completely. It would be fair to buy an exclusive licence for TV broadcast, and perhaps theater exhibition too. But now they expect to release recordings, sell ringtones and exploit the music in any way without further payment.
  • They insist on being the publisher of the music. They don't actually do any publishing, promotion or seek further exploitation. But they will take a full 50%, the most they legally can, of income from the performing right. So they do nothing, but take 50%.

Clearly, composers are being exploited unfairly. But since there are so many people trying to get this kind of work, they have to agree or someone else will get the job.

Thankfully, at least in the UK, the Office of Fair Trading is about to investigate this practice. The British Academy of Songwriters and Composers, together with the Musicians' Union, are gathering evidence to submit a detailed complaint.

If you are a composer for TV in the UK and have suffered from this unfair practice, further information is available on the British Academy's website www.britishacademy.com

By David Mellor Tuesday December 26, 2006