Music Publishing Agreement


Publishing agreements touch on the ownership and administration of the rights associated with the copyright of a musical composition. They are agreements between the author(s) of a work and a music publisher.  Under publishing agreements, music publishers are responsible for finding users for a song, issuing licenses for its use and giving a portion of the money collected to the songwriter. In exchange,  authors will sign over a portion of the revenue generated by the song to the publisher. Authors also often will sign over a portion of their copyright in the song  to the publisher (a publishing agreement). The portion of the author’s copyright signed over in publishing agreements can vary, but is often around 50%.   Under publishing adminsitration agreements, the author generally will not sign over a portion of the copyright. Instead, they will merely grant the right to administer the publication of their work for a specified period of time.

It is important to remember that songwriters can only assign what they own in a song.  For example, if one song has two authors with equal interest, neither can assign more than 50% of the copyright over the song.

There is also a distinction drawn between agreements assigning publishing rights for a single song, and agreements over the publishing rights to severeal works (exclusive term contracts).  Exclusive term contracts will usually hand over publishing rights for a catalogue of songs for a specific period of time. There are also a variety of agreements that will fall somewhere in between these two types.

What is included

A standard publishing agreement outlines how the author will be paid by the publisher after royalties and licensing fees have been collected. The agreement will include what proportion of royalties will be held by the publisher and what proportion will go to the artist. Traditionally, the publisher will split all income received from the song 50/50 with the songwriter , but often it is now a 75/25 split in favour of author under a publishing agreement and a 85/15 split under an administration agreement. The agreement may also stipulate what types of uses of the music are acceptable to the author. For example, if the publishing agreement contains no clause about licensing the music for commercial purposes, the publisher could use the music in a television ad without first asking the artist. Therefore, it’s important to keep in mind that a publishing agreement is important for both the author’s livelihood and artistic integrity.

In most publishing contracts, the author grants rights to the publisher for the full duration of copyright in the songs. This means that the publisher will own 50% of the songs for the full duration of copyright (which lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years in the US and the life of the author plus 50 years in Canada). Increasingly, however, author may assign the copyright to a publisher for only a limited time, or have an administration-only agreement (described above) with a publisher whereby they hold on to the song’s copyright.  Songwriters may also be able to negotiate a return of copyright in songs. For example, an author might try to get a publisher to agree that if a song assigned to them is not recorded and released on a record, used in a movie or television show, etc, within a specified time period, the copyright reverts back to the author.

It is also worth noting that both publishing and publishing administration agreements will sometimes only transfer rights in specific countries. For example, it is possible to transfer publishing rights in Canada, but retain them in France. However, publishers generally ask for world-wide rights to maximize their earning potential.

For the author without a publisher…

If an author does not have a music publisher, they will negotiate directly with those who want to license their work.  In relation to performance rights and mechanical licenses (a description of these coming soon to this website), a writer can become a member of SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors, and Music Publishers of Canada) and CMRRA (The Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency Limited), which will collect and distribute to them royalties owed.  Authors can register with these organizations whether or not they have publishers.

Questions to consider when negotiating a publishing agreement

Does the publisher have the right to change the title of the song(s) and/or revise lyrics?

If the author is concerned with the artistic integrity of their work, they can ensure that the publisher has no right to alter the work without consent in the agreement.

Is the publisher required to get approval from the writer for synchronization licenses (use of music in film, TV and jingles)?

If there isn’t a consultation requirement written into the publishing agreement, a publisher can license the song or song catalogue to any commercial or artistic project, even if the author disapproves of such use of their work. Nevertheless, it may not always be practical for writers to have full approval rights written into their synch agreements. These licenses are often lucrative but require a quick turn around.Therefore a lot of agreements give the writer 5 days to approve the use, or approval is deemed to have been, given.

What percentage of the money made off the song or song catalogue is the publisher entitled to?

Most artist contracts grant around 50% to a publisher, but it does not mean that negotiations can’t be done to alter this percentage.

When there is more than one writer on a song, are the song splits clearly identified?

(e.g. Songwriter XX – 33.33%; Songwriter XY – 33.33%; Songwriter XZ – 33.34%)

Most contracts will have this clearly identified and accurate in the agreement, for many reasons, including the disinterest many have in paying for a license with unclear splits.

How long is the term of the agreement?

Administration agreements can last anywhere from one year to sometimes, fifteen years.