An alternative music licensing model

Oh, I’m thoroughly fed up with explaining music licensing to people. Even when they think they ‘get it,’ they still go around describing things as ‘copyright free’. Umm… no. As a rule of thumb, any time you see the phrase ‘copyright free’ you should run a mile, because whatever you’re reading has been written by someone who doesn’t understand.

Currently, you pay twice for commercial music: first, you pay a royalty to copy it into your project (‘mechanical copying’). Second, you pay when your work is published or performed. Broadcast, web publication, public performance, whatever – you inform the Performers’ Rights Society (via ‘music returns’), and they collect performance fees from you.

In the old media model, the producer pays the first set of fees (or, more likely, uses production music that’s on a blanket deal – hence ‘royalty free’ from their point of view), then the broadcaster/publisher/venue pays the second set of fees.

With web publication you still have to cover both sets of fees, one way or another. Even if you’re using Garageband, say, you’ve already bought bundled production music (included with the software), then at point of publication you’re not a PRS member, so there are no fees to collect and hence no music return is required. But the principle still holds.

The music industry has dumped huge resources into, amongst other things, legal fees and lobbying for DRM to sustain this model.

Here’s another way things could be:

Suppose we standardised the metadata fields available in media files to include a music track URL. Now, the PRS (and other national equivalents) holds a huge database of tracks – how hard would it be to expose that via standardised URLs?, say?

That URL could happily redirect to the accessor’s national equivalent, but the key concept is this: the page returned by that URL holds copyright data on the track, including links to places you can buy it. Amazon, iTunes, whatever Microsoft are doing this month, and so on. PRS takes an affiliate cut from referring visitors to those sites.

Under this model, the resources PRS puts into lobbying and pushing DRM and policing usage, they now put into lobbying people writing media tools (Microsoft, Apple, Avid, Ulead, Sony, and so on) to (a.) read and write the audio URL metadata fields, and (b.) allow easy access to those links from their media player software.

Example: you’re watching a YouTube video on your iPhone, think ‘this music is cool,’ click the music button YouTube have added to their player, and a couple of links later you’ve bought the album and it’s downloading to your iTunes library. I’d do that. Wouldn’t you?

Crucially, the music industry declare that this is how you’re going to do music clearance for online media. They’re not going to do returns (huge overhead, surely doesn’t scale to millions of websites even from the collecting agencies’ end?), they’re not going to do DRM. They’re just going to make it trivially easy for people to say ‘I like this track’, find out what it is, and buy it.

In some alternative universe this is what they’ve been doing from the start. Right now, I’m scratching my head trying to work out what would be so hard about making it happen. And I’d love somebody in the industry to do the sums to work out how much it might cost, net, compared to maintaining and defending the current disaster.


  1. Ah, were it that easy. The mechanical royalties you refer to are publishing income that gets paid by a label to an artist or publisher when a CD (or digital track) is sold. The performance royalty is paid when a song is played, for example, on the radio (online or otherwise), and artists can often make a decent living off this type of income–as opposed to a record royalty, which is often never seen. Using a song for a YouTube video, however, is another license altogether and labels, publishers and artists all have to team up and agree to this use (a near impossibility, particularly if an artist is signed to a major label). I posted an alternate idea today though ( that I think also would work, which would involve a small fee to use for a limited sync license.
    But regardless, the link idea is a good one, and no doubt that will emerge eventually. Your idea is more direct, and I think pretty viable. Check out if you’re interested, as I brought up a somewhat similar idea on that front there.

  2. Ah yes, I rather forget that when you buy music, the artists get 4¢ or something – they make proper money when it’s played. My half-baked scheme would require the music industry to give up this model for the web, on the grounds that it’s never going to scale properly to millions of video/audio publishers, and start again from scratch. That whole-industry renegotiation is something of a stumbling-block, I’ll grant you.
    On the other hand, I’m rather pleased that my intemperate rant last night wasn’t utterly flameworthy nonsense.
    And yes, is terrific, and quite likely plays a role in this sort of future.

  3. Thanks, that really helped me out.

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