Music Copyright Clearance
The process of securing music rights for gamemusic is called
'clearance'. Clearance means getting permission from the owner of the music copyright.
To get music permission, musiccontracts have to be drafted and signed (licenses). Also, royalties will have to
be paid for the publishing rights and the master rights. Unauthorised use of a musical composition (the
underlying work) or a sound recording of a composition (the master) in a game is an infringement of
1. Determine who is the owner (copyrightholder) of the song or the songwriter (publishing): the music copyright.
You have to identify who controls the publishing rights of the music you
intend to use in the game. Performance rights organization's databases such as Ascap, BMI, Sesac, SoundExchange,
Socan, Gema, Buma, Sena, PRS, Sacem, Sabam, SGAE, Koda, SIAE, STIM, ZAIKS, SACM, ECAD, APRA, RAO and SUISA are a
great starting point to identify the copyrightholder(s).
2. Locate the owner of the master sound recording, usually the label: the recording copyright. You have to
identify who controls the master rights to the sound recording of the
music (the actual mp3, .wav or .aif file) you intend to use in the game. In case you record your own version of a
song and use only this version in your videogame, the master rights do not need to be cleared.
3. Negotiate the terms of the copyright clearance (permission and royalty payments). In
case of budget limitations, use contract options such as duration, territory, future use, broad rights,
distribution media, companion products and collateral marketing materials to lower the clearance fee. Per
game royalties or one time buyout fees can make a big difference. Pre-existing commercial music will be
significantly more expensive to license than library music or custom made music. Generally, exclusive custom
made music is the safest way to go as well as most costeffective for succesful audio branding.
4. Prepare or review the necessary licenses. This is the domain of your music
lawyer. The terms in the license need to be an exact mirror of the negotiated agreement between the game
studio and the owners of the music and sound recording copyrights.
5. Do not use the copyrighted songs in case the copyrightholders do not give permission, do not respond to
your requests, or in case the owners can not be located or identified. Be sure to have some cleared music
alternatives for your game production.
The copyright owner's country of origin and thereby its specific jurisdiction can impede on the music
clearance process. Different jurisdictions have different sets of rules. A couple examples: In some countries,
such as France or The Netherlands, the game studio will have to contact the artist's performance rights
organization directly when clearing the mechanical rights, instead of
contacting the copyright owner personally. In the UK, a PRS license would be needed for clearing public
performance rights. The USA and Canada have different rules and do not always acknowledge performance rights, for instance when streaming or playing online
games. Furthermore, the owners of the master rights have a copyright (similair in strength to the
publishing right) in the USA and Canada, whereas in Europe the owners of the recording rights (the
producer or the record label) just have a neighboring right or adjacent right. Also, the USA Copyright
Office makes an exception for music in games: there is no compulsory license (Harry Fox Agency) for use of musical
compositions in audiovisual works, only a consensual license. We are a long way off from a centralized global
music rights database and harmonizing music copyright law. Interterritorial licensing can be a complex and
sometimes confusing process.
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