Frequently Asked Questions

Music Industry Terminology

Sometimes also referred to as a composition or song, a musical work consists of music, including any accompanying lyrics. A musical work may be embodied in a sound recording but is not the same as a sound recording from a copyright perspective.

A sound recording is the result of recording a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds. A sound recording may embody a musical work but is not the same as a musical work. Sometimes people refer to this as a track. 

A music video is audiovisual media typically comprised of one sound recording, which incorporates one musical work. Historically, these were viewed on video channels like MTV. Today they are streamed on a variety of video platforms, like YouTube. 

Copyright is a form of protection granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. In the U.S. and in most other countries, a musical work, fixed in a system of music notation or on paper, or in a recording may be protected under copyright law. A sound recording may separately be protected under copyright law. Copyright protection applies to both musical works and sound recordings that have been made available to the public or kept unavailable. For more information on copyright in the U.S., visit https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/.

A Songwriter is someone who applies their creative talent to the creation of musical works, writing the music, and sometimes also the lyrics, usually in a popular music style (e.g. rock, country, hip hop, pop). A composer is someone who applies their creative talent to the creation of musical works, composing the music, usually in a classical or jazz musical style. A lyricist is someone who applies their creative talent to the creation of musical works, writing the lyrics, across many styles of music including musical theater. 

A shorthand way of referring collectively to songwriters, composers, and lyricists is to refer to them as writers. Writers may be the sole creator of a musical work or may collaborate with other others in its creation. A writer may also be a Recording Artist. 

  • Songwriters, composers and lyricists are “self-administered” if they have retained the right to register their own musical works with The MLC AND collect their own mechanical royalties directly or through a business manager, accountant, lawyer or other representative/agent). 

  • Songwriters, composers, and lyricists who have assigned their rights to register their musical works and collect their mechanical royalties in the United States to a music publisher or administrator, will not need to become a Member of The MLC. Their publisher or administrator will handle the collection and registration. If a songwriter, composer, or lyricist works with a music publisher or administrator in any capacity, they should check with that music publisher or administrator before becoming a Member of The MLC. 

 

A recording artist applies their creative talent to the creation of sound recordings. A recording artist may be the sole creator of a sound recording or may collaborate with producers and other recording artists in its creation. A recording artist may also be a songwriter, composer, or lyricist. 

A record company is an entity which invests its resources into the creation, promotion, acquisition, and/or licensing of sound recording and music video assets and receives revenue when these assets are commercially exploited.

A music distributor or music aggregator is an entity which invests its resources into the distribution of sound recordings and music video assets and receives revenue when these assets are streamed, downloaded, or physically sold. A record distributor enters into distribution deals with record companies or with self-released artists. In some cases, a record distributor may be a division in a global entertainment company which also owns record companies. In other cases, it may be a stand-alone company.

A digital service provider is an entity which invests its resources into the development, promotion, and use of a technology platform to deliver sound recordings to consumers as streams or downloads, and receives revenue from either consumer subscriptions to the service or advertisers who pay to advertise to consumers of the service. 

Digital service providers may provide one or more of these types of user experiences to consumers of their services:

Interactive Stream: A digital transmission of a sound recording where the consumer has control over which sound recording to stream and in what order to stream it. An example of this is the user experience offered by Spotify and Apple Music.

Permanent Download: A digital transmission of a sound recording in the form of a download, where the consumer has unlimited control over how many times to access it. An example of this are the recordings available for download in the iTunes Store.

Limited Download: A digital transmission of a sound recording where the consumer has limited control over either the length of time or the number of times they can access it. An example of this are the recordings available for off-line access by Spotify and Apple Music.

Non-Interactive Stream: A digital transmission of a sound recording where the consumer has limited control over which sound recording to stream, in what order it appears, and how many times to stream it, similar to a radio broadcast. An example of this is the user experience offered by Pandora Radio and SiriusXM.

The MLC grants licenses to, and collects and distributes royalties from, digital service providers for interactive streams, limited downloads, and permanent downloads. The MLC does not grant licenses to, nor collects royalties from, digital service providers for non-interactive streams. 

A mechanical license is permission to reproduce and distribute a musical work in the form of a physical or digital phonorecord. An example of a physical phonorecord is a sound recording on a CD or vinyl record. Examples of digital phonorecords are sound recordings delivered as interactive streams, limited downloads, or permanent downloads. If a musical work is protected by copyright law, its unauthorized reproduction and distribution is copyright infringement. 

A mechanical license may be obtained through a voluntarily negotiated license between the party requesting the license and the party granting it, or through the use of a “compulsory” license. Section 115 of the U.S. Copyright Act establishes a compulsory license (sometime also called a “statutory license”), and if certain conditions are met, it means that the party wishing to obtain a license is granted one as a matter of law, regardless of what the copyright owner wants, so long as they comply with the rules set forth in the law regarding the operation of the license. The law establishes eligibility requirements and obligations.

Mechanical licenses require the payment of mechanical royalties to the copyright owner or administrator of a musical work. In the case of a voluntarily negotiated license, the royalty rate is negotiated.  In the case of a compulsory license, the rate is set by the Copyright Royalty Board (known as the CRB), a three-judge panel within the U.S. Library of Congress.

For more information on the compulsory mechanical license for making and distributing physical phonorecords, read the Copyright Office circular found at https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ73a.pdf

For more information on the compulsory mechanical license for making and distributing digital phonorecords, read the Copyright Office circular found at https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ73b.pdf

The blanket license that is administered by the MLC is a compulsory license that allows DSPs to make and distribute digital phonorecords of every musical work that is eligible for a compulsory mechanical license, provided that the DSP pays royalties for its uses of musical works and complies with various requirements, such as to report detailed information on what works were used.  A DSP only needs to secure one license, the blanket license, instead of securing a license on a musical work share-by-share basis.

A public performance license is permission to perform a work at a place open to the public or where a substantial number of people outside of a normal circle of family and friends is gathered. It includes transmitting or broadcasting the work, whether the members of the public are capable of receiving the performance receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times. The MLC is not involved in public performance licenses or royalties.

Public performance licenses for the performance of musical works are generally granted by performing rights organizations, like ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and GMR, as blanket licenses. These organizations collect performance royalties from entities responsible for presenting the performance, such as radio stations, night clubs, and digital service providers, and pay them on to songwriters, composers, lyricists, and music publishers. 

Public performance licenses for the performance of sound recordings via digital transmission are generally granted as compulsory licenses under section 114 of the U.S. copyright law. These licenses are administered by SoundExchange, which also collects royalties from non-interactive digital service providers (including webcasters and satellite radio) and pays them on to artists and sound recording copyright owners. 

A synchronization license is permission to incorporate a musical work and/or sound recording into an audiovisual work, such as a movie, television show, video game, or music video. Another example of where music is incorporated into an audiovisual work is the video content created and posted by users of platforms such as YouTube. The MLC is not involved in synchronization licenses or royalties.

Sometimes also referred to as master royalties, record royalties are payments from record companies to artists based on the legal agreements between them. They typically involve a record company paying the artist a portion of the revenue it receives from the reproduction, distribution, or licensing of sound recordings and music videos that incorporate the artist’s performance. In the case of a self-released artist, the record royalty revenue typically flows directly from the record distributor to the artist. The MLC is not involved in record royalties.

The Orrin G. Hatch-Bob Goodlatte Music Modernization Act (MMA) of 2018 or ‘Music Modernization Act’ for short, is the most significant piece of copyright legislation in decades and updates our current laws to reflect modern consumer preferences and technological developments in the music marketplace. The law is organized into three key titles: Title I—Musical Works Modernization Act; Title II—Classics Protection and Access Act; and Title III—Allocation for Music Producers Act.

 

Title I of the Act, the Musical Works Modernization Act, replaces the existing song-by-song compulsory licensing structure for making and distributing musical works with a blanket licensing system for digital music providers to make and distribute digital phonorecord deliveries (e.g., permanent downloads, limited downloads, or interactive streams). It also establishes a mechanical licensing collective to administer the blanket license, and a digital licensee coordinator to coordinate the activities of the licensees and designate a representative to serve as a non-voting member on the board of the collective.

For more information, visit the MMA page on the Copyright Office website.

A music publisher is an entity which invests its resources into the creation, promotion, acquisition, licensing, and/or administration of musical work assets and receives revenue when these assets are commercially exploited.

An administrator is an entity which engages in many types of administrative activities that a music publisher would generally do, on behalf of its publisher, songwriter, composer, and lyricist clients.

Musical works are identified with an International Standard Musical Work Code (ISWC). An ISWC is a unique 11-character international identifier assigned to a musical work. For example, the musical work “Yesterday,” written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon has the ISWC T-801.412.391-3. An ISWC identifies the musical work embodied in any given version of a recording, so even though “Yesterday” has been recorded thousands of times by many different artists, the ISWC of the musical work embodied in the recording should remain the same. The ISWC is helpful when activity or information related to musical works needs to be tracked or managed, such as in the processing of public performance or mechanical royalties. It is assigned the first time a musical work is registered with a qualified ISWC agency. In the U.S., ISWCs are assigned when musical works are registered with one of the U.S. performing rights organizations. For more information, and to access a publicly available database of ISWCs, visit https://iswcnet.cisac.org.  

Parties with an interest in musical works, such as songwriters, composers, lyricists, and music publishers, are identified in the Interested Party Information (IPI) standard. One identifier in the standard is the IP Base Number. This identifies the natural person or legal entity. The related identifier, the IP Name Number, represents a particular public identity such as a stage name or writer pseudonym that is related to an IP Base Number. For example, the composer commonly known as Prince, would have one IP Base Number assigned to him as a natural person, with multiple related IP Name Numbers, one for the name “Prince” and one for the name “Nelson Prince Rogers.” The IPI standard is widely used by performing rights organizations around the world to ensure that the royalties they pay are routed to the appropriate party. It is assigned the first time a songwriter, composer, lyricist, or other rightsholder registers with a performing rights organization, and it is subsequently associated with related musical works when they are registered with the organization. For more information, visit https://www.cisac.org/What-We-Do/Information-Services/IPI  

Sound recordings and music videos are identified with an International Standard Recording Code (ISRC). An ISRC is a unique 12-character international identifier assigned to each version of a recording or music video. For example, The Beatles recording of “Yesterday” (1965) has the ISRC GBAYE6500521, the Elvis Presley version of “Yesterday” (1969) has a different ISRC USRC16908444, and the Marvin Gaye recording of “Yesterday” (1970) also has a different ISRC USMO17000287. An ISRC is helpful when activity or information related to recordings or music videos needs to be tracked or managed, such as in the processing of digital streams or downloads. It is usually assigned by a record company during the production process, although in the case of do-it-yourself recording artists whose recordings are not overseen by a record company, it may be assigned by an authorized ISRC Manager such as a music distributor or a metadata management company. Before a record company or ISRC Manager can assign ISRCs, it must obtain a Registrant Code from a National ISRC Agency. In the U.S., the agency is the RIAA. For more information, visit https://isrc.ifpi.org/en/ or https://www.usisrc.org/. To search for an ISRC, visit https://isrc.soundexchange.com/.

Public identities of contributors to creative works and those active in their distribution, such as Songwriters/Composers, Recording Artists, music publishers, and Record Companies, can be identified with an International Standard Name Identifier (ISNI). Beethoven, The Rolling Stones, Atlantic Records, and Warner Chappell all have ISNIs. It was originally developed as a generic tool for identifying contributors to all creative works though its early application was in identifying creators of textual works by libraries and archives. ISNI codes are assigned in a central database when data from approved data contributors is reviewed and a high level of confidence in matching new names to exiting names is achieved. The ISNI International Agency (a UK based non-profit company) serves as the Registration Authority, and it appoints Registration Agencies. Many songwriters, composers, lyricists, and recording artists have an ISNI because their music has been cataloged in a library. For more information, visit https://isni.org/  

A musical work is in the public domain if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner. Musical works in the public domain may be reproduced and distributed as a phonorecord without the need for mechanical licenses and royalties. Determining if a musical work is in the public domain is often complicated. For help in finding the answer, explore these resources: 

Copyright Office circular on the duration of copyright protection: https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ15a.pdf

Public Domain Information Project: https://www.pdinfo.com/