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My last article discussed situations in which songwriters who've written hit songs, or their heirs, are being underpaid. I suggested that songwriters and heirs who haven't recently reviewed their contracts work with an attorney to determine whether they're being paid correctly and whether they have the option of negotiating a contract with more favorable terms.

You may be wondering: why should songwriters and their heirs deal with music publishers at all? What does a music publisher do, exactly?

In a nutshell, a music publisher owns or administers copyrights in songs, and licenses them to companies and other entities that use music, such as record labels, radio stations, filmmakers, and advertisers. The publisher then collects the license fee, keeps a cut, and pays the rest to the songwriters or their heirs. Note that a music publisher controls the song -- the words and music -- as opposed to any particular recording of the song. Recordings are generally owned by recording artists and record labels.

The most important function of a music publisher is to promote songs to licensees, thus getting the songs used in ways that earn money. Today, many large music publishers control so many thousands of songs that the employees of the company can't be familiar with all of them, and wind up promoting only their newest or best-known songs. But other companies, especially smaller ones, still actively promote a larger percentage of their catalogs: talking to record label executives to get new versions recorded; talking to music supervisors to get the songs into films, TV shows, and advertisements; and licensing newer uses like ringtones, videogames, and digital downloads. Printed sheet music, once the largest source of income for songwriters and publishers, is now generally the smallest, but it can still be an important source of revenue for some works, such as those written specifically for use in music classes.

A good music publisher will have contacts and experience allowing him or her to promote songs to the maximum number of potential licensees and negotiate good terms for their use. Most subscribe to specialized industry publications and services that give them an early "heads up" if someone is looking for music for a particular recording artist or film, for example. A good publisher will also stay on top of industry developments and actively seek out new sources of income. Without access to industry contacts, publications, and experience, an independent songwriter may be unable to place music with licensees at favorable terms.

All these different kinds of licenses and royalties require that the publisher create, receive and review a lot of paperwork consisting of various contracts, forms, and royalty statements. Some are simple and some are complex. Forgetting about or making an error on a form or contract can mean a loss of royalties.

For example, if the publisher and a filmmaker agree that a particular song can be used in a film, the rights are granted in a synchronization license (or "synch" license for short). The terms of these can vary widely. If the contract is written by a lawyer at large film production company, the first draft may be very biased in favor of the film company. Conversely, a new, independent filmmaker may not know how to write a synch license and may leave out important points, which could cause problems or even lawsuits down the road. A music publisher can help negotiate a better agreement in both of these situations. The music publisher will also ensure that a cue sheet, listing every song used in the film, has been provided to the performing rights societies, allowing the writers and publishers to receive additional royalties each time the film is broadcast on television or cable channels.

After the music publisher negotiates a license, he collects the fee from the licensee, keeps the publisher's share (usually 50%), and forwards the rest to the songwriter or heir at the end of each royalty period (usually every six months). The task of collecting royalties from a large number of licensees, and forwarding the correct percentages to the correct writers and heirs, can be labor- and paperwork-intensive. Many publishers use specialized royalty-processing software to do the calculations. If a particular licensee doesn't pay the agreed-upon fee, a publisher may have an attorney or specialized collections person on staff to go after them.

A music publisher also has foreign affiliates to collect royalties on foreign uses. For example, a TV show or film produced in one country may eventually be shown on cable channels in many different countries. Foreign affiliates are better equipped than the songwriter or original publisher to become aware of such uses and ensure that the proper royalties are paid. The foreign affiliate can also negotiate and promote uses originating in the affiliate's territory, such as translations of lyrics into the local language or advertisements for local products. The foreign affiliates collect royalties in their territories, keep their cuts, then forward the royalties to the U.S. publisher, who keeps a cut and pays the songwriter.

Another reason to have a publisher is that many potential licensees don't want to deal with individual songwriters. For example, if you called up a cell phone service provider and said "I just wrote a song and I'd like to make it available as a ringtone," I doubt they'd be interested. Generally, cell phone companies license catalogs of songs in order to provide ringtone choices for their customers.

The above is just a brief summary of some of the benefits of having your songs represented by a music publisher. Every songwriter and every song has unique attributes, so if you are a songwriter or songwriter's heir and have questions about your own situation, you should consult an attorney with experience in this area.