Music Rights for Use in Films

In recent times, music copyrights and their ownership/rights to producers, artists, among other stakeholders, have been under strong discussion across geographies. We are happy to have a written piece by Gemma Harrison, a freelance writer, on her high-level take on the Copyrights in Music.

This summer, the highest grossing film at the box office was Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, as notable for its music choices as for its place in the growing range of Marvel superhero films sweeping Hollywood at the moment. Guardians of the Galaxy may have grossed upwards of $550 million worldwide, but it cost a cool $170 million to produce – not including Marvel’s expansive marketing campaign – and the music choices can’t have helped with that. Peppered liberally with a range of classic tunes from the 1980s, from David Bowie to 10cc, the familiar soundtrack of Guardians of the Galaxy was extremely visible, provided key plot points, and has spawned mix tapes and tie-in merchandise since the film’s release.

From a filmmaker’s perspective, it’s evidence of Marvel’s central market position, that they were able to negotiate such extensive rights to the tracks – many of which are extremely well-known or iconic. One can only fathom at how much it must have cost them.

Licensing Music for Filmmakers

There are several types of licence that filmmakers need to acquire in order to use a pre-recorded piece of music in films. First of all, the right to use a song differs from the right to use a specific recording of the song. This is particularly key for cover versions, where the rights to the song might not belong to the band who specifically recorded the version. Alternatively, some rights are likely to belong to the record company, with others being retained by the songwriters or performers. The rights to use of the underlying composition, and the specific recording or “master recording”, may very well belong to different people, all of whom have rights which they can enforce.

Once filmmakers have discovered who owns the rights, there are three types of permissions they typically need to obtain: the right to record and distribute copies of the song, to record the music in synchronisation with the moving pictures in the film, and thirdly to perform the song publically as part of the performance of the film. It’s complicated, and convoluted, and for popular songs it can be eye-wateringly expensive. In the case of Guardians of the Galaxy, where the screenwriters deliberately wrote the music into the film as a plot point, it’s a bold and ostentatious move, signifying their vast budgets, and even more vast bargaining power.

Bridgeport Music Inc v Dimension Films, Sampling and Fair Use

In 2004, the case of Bridgeport Music Inc v Dimension Films was heard in the United States, and reached the Court of Appeal. Bridgeport was centred on the digital sampling of a two-second guitar chord from a song, looped five times, without the permission of the rights holder. The federal judge decided that a two second clip was de minimis – that it was too small to cause any real harm to the claimant, and that the claim should be dismissed on that basis.

The Court of Appeal disagreed, deciding that the owner of copyright had an exclusive right to duplicate the work in question, or any part of it, of any length. The Court said, “Get a license or do not sample. We do not see this as stifling creativity in any way.”

The decision is controversial, and has not yet been followed by other Court of Appeal circuits. The reasons for this are several: firstly, it could lead to a single note being copyrightable by a party, which is widely seen as being far too restrictive. The chilling effect of not knowing how small a section of music is covered by copyright rules could be substantial. Others have said that the decision stifles fair use policies. Since the use of the clip in Bridgeport was transformative, for non-commercial purposes, and did not harm the market for the original work or its derivatives, fair use policy should be able to give the defendants some protection.

This could have a knock-on effect for filmmakers, especially those making educational films or films reporting or commentating on the news, which are given a higher status under fair comment rules. It remains the case that filmmakers still have to be careful about using pre-recorded songs in their films, especially since the licences they would need to obtain are extensive. Given that the United States case law has yet to encounter many cases of digital sampling or the use of new technology in copyright claims, we may expect the law to remain unclear or inadequate for a few years to come.

Further reading

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