1. Registration of a song with a PRO does not provide any copyright protection.
The most common misunderstanding I encounter from songwriters is that registering their songs with one of the U.S. music performance rights organizations (“PROs”), i.e. ASCAP, BMI, SESAC or GMR, gives the songwriter some protection of their intellectual property rights in their songs. That is simply not the case. Registration of a song with a PRO simply puts the song into the licensable database of the PRO and makes the proprietor information publicly available.
Music performance rights organizations, also known as performing rights societies, act as licensing agents for songwriters and music publishers with respect to the public performance of their songs. In order to play a copyrighted song on radio (over-the-air, satellite and internet), on television (network, cable, satellite and internet), perform it live (bars, concert halls and festivals) or digitally stream it (Pandora, Spotify, etc.), a public performance license must be obtained from the writer and publisher.
Registering a song or catalog of songs with a PRO will enable a songwriter or publisher to receive public performance rights and allow them to participate in events or take advantage of collective negotiating efforts, but that is all the registration does. The PRO registration does not register the copyright in a song or provide any licensing benefits other than public performance. In order to obtain the full benefits of copyright law protection, the writer or publisher should register their songs with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Although copyright registration is not a prerequisite to copyright protection, it is certainly “cheap insurance” from an intellectual property standpoint. If registration is made within three months of publication of the song or at any time prior to an infringement of the song, the copyright owner is entitled to seek statutory damages and attorney’s fees in federal court. That means a losing infringer may have to pay the owner’s legal fees and the damages awarded to the owner may be substantially increased based on the copyright law.
In addition to registering their songs with a PRO, songwriters and publishers should take the additional step of registering the copyrights in their songs with the Copyright Office. PRO registration is beneficial for searching writer/publisher information and for performance royalty collection purposes, but songwriters and publishers should not assume that registration provides any more expansive advantages than it actually does.
2. PROs issue licenses for public performance of songs and collect performance royalties (that is basically all they do).
The right of public performance is one of the exclusive rights granted to copyright owners under the U.S. Copyright Act (see 17 U.S. Code §106). Although copyright law allows songwriters and publishers to license performance rights themselves, it would be impossible (or at least impractical) for them to negotiate licenses with every radio station, television station, concert hall, etc. So, the concept of performing rights organizations arose. PROs aggregate the performing rights of writers and publishers, negotiate licenses with users of their music, collect the income from those licenses, and distribute that income to the applicable writers and publishers after deducting their operating expenses.
PROs track performances using various reporting and sampling techniques, and they offer both catalog licenses and per-use licenses. PROs do provide certain career development assistance, legislation advocacy efforts and philanthropic help for their members and outside musicians. They consistently present concerts, expos, seminars, workshops, camps and other activities for their members and the public, but that is where their efforts stop. PROs are not huge rights clearing houses for song catalogs.
3. Registration of a song with a PRO does not facilitate issuing mechanical licenses or synchronization licenses.
PROs do not issue mechanical licenses, synchronization licenses or any music publishing licenses other than public performance licenses. Registration of a song with a PRO makes the relevant writer/publisher information searchable for the song, which may help a potential licensee locate the proprietor of a song. However, the applicable PRO does not have any involvement in procuring, negotiating or issuing mechanical licenses for recordings of songs by recording artists or synchronization licenses for uses of songs in films, television programs, video games or other audiovisual productions. Those types of licensing must be handled separately by a songwriter’s music publisher and/or attorney.