Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Sync and Master License for Use of Music in a Film Demystified (kind of)

I am not a lawyer.  I have no right to give legal advice and I am not doing that now.  That's my disclaimer.

Still, I have often joked, a lawyer spends just three years learning their craft before becoming a professional lawyer.  Most musicians, after only three years of study, can barely play a listenable tune, (I would have been 10 years old at the time) much less charge $100+ an hour for what they play. But I digress....

As a media composer, I have, by necessity, learned a thing or two about music law, copyright, synchronization licenses, performance royalties, trademarks, master licenses, statutory royalties, and just about everything else that has to do with the monetization of music.   When one's very survival depends on your knowledge of these things, one has a tendency to study well.   The rules are complicated and constantly changing as new delivery methods and technologies emerge.  It's maddening.

Despite all the changes in the business, here is one of the most basic questions one must be able to answer.  

"What type of agreements do you need to put in place with a production company in order to have your music included in a media project?"

A "Synchronization License" and a "Master License. " 
For demonstration purposes only,
Download a Generic Sync and Master License

•  Synchronization License:

I define a "Synchronization License" as the right to synchronize the abstract creation that is the composition to an image.  In essence, it's kind of like Paul McCartney saying to the film company, "Here's a lead sheet to my song 'Yesterday,' including the melody and harmony, now do with it as you will to make that work with your image."

Notice, this license has nothing to do with any tangible version of the music, just the abstract intellectual property of the work.  With a sync license, you either need to create your own "Master Recording," or find a "Master Recording" that you wish to include and pay for separately.  We'll address that in a moment.

Who grants the "Synchronization License?"

If you are a filmmaker who wants to use a specific composition in your movie, 95% of the time you have to get the sync license from the publisher of the composition.  ASCAP,  BMI, and most other Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) worldwide have searchable databases that will share that contact information.

Buyer beware:  I have many times had a filmmaker say to me, "I am best friends with 'So and So' from the band 'Such and Such.'  He told me it's OK to use the song for free." I quietly nod and think, "Call me when the publisher tells you the license is going to cost $10K."

If you are the composer, upon the completion of the creation of the composition, you own the publishing rights and copyright to the intellectual property that is the composition and therefore, you grant the "Synchronization License."

Fun Fact:  As a composer, you can not grant your publishing or copyright in your music to anyone without a written contract.  Verbal agreements do not count!  If the contract is not in writing, it doesn't exist.  This protects composers from people making unjust claims against the ownership of your music.  

•  Master License

I define the "Master License" as the right to synchronize a specific "Master Recording" to an image.   

Take for example, the song "Yesterday" mentioned above.  Through the fore-mentioned "Synchronization License," the filmmaker was granted the right to take the abstract work that is the song "Yesterday," and include it in their project. 

Through the "Master License," the filmmaker is granted the right to a specific master recording of the song.

As one might imagine, there are hundreds of recordings of the song "Yesterday" and they can vary widely in price to license.  If it's the Beatles recording, the license fee can range in the millions of dollars.  If it's your neighbor's recording in their garage (unless you live next to Sir Paul) it might cost a fiver.

The filmmaker can also create their own master recording and avoid paying the "Master License" to an outside party, once they have the sync license.

Who grants the "Master License?"

The owner in the copyright in the "Master Recording" grants the "Master License."  Usually this is whomever paid for the recording. 

If the composition appeared on a released CD, usually the master is owned by the record company. Sometimes, the master is also owned by the publisher.  If you are the composer and the recording was created in your home studio, you own the copyright in the master recording and grant the license.


These are by far the most basic of descriptions of a Synchronization License and a Master License, but hopefully this will start the demystification process.  

To study more you might wish to Download a Generic Sync and Master License.

Finally, if you are an aspiring media composer interested in learning more about the business of music,  I recommended this book by Jeffery and Todd Brabec.  In it's seventh edition, it's doing its best to stay up to date on the shifting sands of the ever changing music landscape.

I also recommend these 4 books.


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