From TV Shows to Samples: Collecting Royalties is a Rough Game

TMZ broke a story recently that the Universal Music Publishing Group is seeking $3000 from the Michael Jackson estate for the use of an R Kelly song in an upcoming show titled “Michael Jackson’s Private Home Movies.” The clip in question, which is embedded below, shows MJ having some fun while listening to the “Ignition Remix” by R Kelly. There hasn’t been a response yet by Jackson’s lawyers.

I chose to share this story with you to show you that anyone and everyone can get caught up in the game of payment of royalties, particularly when they didn’t mean to maliciously violate copyright law.

They will especially come after you the more popular you become (see: Kanye West, more than once).

Part of the problem is that there isn’t much of a formula for what is considered “fair compensation” for sample use, royalties, or airing a song in a TV show for 20 seconds. In fact, there isn’t a formula at all. Back in 2008, SPIN Magazine published a very provocative feature that questioned if sampling, particularly in hip-hop, was being forced into obscurity because of undefined and often unfair copyright laws.

RZA, the producer and founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, was quoted in the article as saying that the main problem is that there’s no standard operating procedure as to how songwriters and publishers should be compensated.

RZA believes sampling needs to be regulated, starting with standardized fees and government oversight. Producers often have to give 50 to 100 percent of any publishing revenue to the original artist they’re sampling. RZA would like to see a new system where the publishing is equally split between the new producer and original artist, and in which session players from the initial recording even get paid again. “All this publishing was taken away from the artists,” he says, “and that kind of raped the hip- hop industry.” But not everyone in the industry shares his opinion.
SPIN, December 2008

The reality is that publishers and labels hold all the leverage, and if they do not like the terms of the agreement, they simply say no. This is not exactly an even negotiation. It’s my own belief that all sides have the right to be compensated, but as long as there’s no precedent, standard or law, the mainstream and general art form of sampling is suffering.

Beyond sampling, it makes licensing songs for TV shows difficult as well, as Michael Jackson’s lawyers just found out.

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