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Ivors and MU hit out at children’s content company seeking writer’s share on music it commissions

By | Published on Wednesday 16 March 2022

Moonbug Entertainment

The Ivors Academy and Musicians’ Union have hit out at Moonbug Entertainment – a company that makes audio and video content for children, much of it mainly available via online channels – over the deals it has been seeking from the music-makers it works with. According to Ivors and the MU, Moonbug has been pressuring those music-makers to direct PRS to pay it any performing rights royalties due on the music they create for the media firm, including the so called ‘writer’s share’.

When media companies commission original music, the deal between the media company and the music-maker needs to set out who will own the copyrights in music that is created. These days in the UK, media firms will usually want to own most of the rights in the commissioned music. Which means that, not only can they do whatever they like with said music within the project it is being commissioned for, they can also use and exploit the music in other ways in the future.

However, the exception is the so called performing rights of the song copyright. If the music-maker is a PRS member – which they usually are – then the performing rights in the song will automatically go to the collecting society, which will then license those rights and collect any royalties due. This means that when a programme containing the music is broadcast or streamed, a PRS licence is required and additional royalties are collected.

Now, the commissioning media company can act as the publisher of the music and therefore claim what is known as the ‘publisher’s share’ of any income generated by PRS, which is commonly 50%. Sometimes it’s the media company itself that will need to secure the PRS licence when its programme is broadcast or streamed. However, of whatever money it hands over under that licence, it will then get 50% back as the publisher (minus any PRS fees).

But by convention PRS has to pay at least 50% of the money it generates by licensing the performing rights directly to the writer – that being the ‘writer’s share’. Under that system, whatever deal the music-maker agrees with the commissioning company and whatever upfront fees they are paid, the music-maker will still receive additional royalties via the collective licensing system whenever the programme containing their music is broadcast or streamed.

However, in recent years some media companies have been seeking to control all of the rights – or at least revenues – associated with the music they commission. This is often referred to as a complete ‘buy-out’. This has proven controversial within the music community, with various campaigns launched to oppose this practice, by Ivors and MU in the UK, as well as the Your Music Your Future initiative, which began in the US and then expanded via a partnership with CISAC.

Quite how a full buy out is achieved depends on the specifics of copyright law and collecting society rules in any one country. It is easiest to achieve in the US. In the UK, one way to achieve it is to allow the performing rights to go to PRS, as normal, but then have the writer direct the collecting society to pay the writer’s share of any income to the media company, rather than the writer. And that’s what Moonbug has seemingly been pressuring the music-makers it works with to do.

PRS does have a system in place whereby a writer can submit a ‘letter of direction’ instructing the society to pay their writer’s share from a specific work to another entity. However, PRS insists, that system is meant to be used in a small number of very specific circumstances, and not so that media companies can in essence achieve a full buyout when commissioning original music for their programmes.

In a statement on Twitter earlier this week the society said: “There are many valid reasons for a member to request PRS direct their royalties to an alternative source. PRS retains full discretion on whether to agree such a request and on what terms, although will generally not seek to a block a request supported by all the relevant declarations, including confirmation independent legal advice has been obtained”.

But, it went on, “for the avoidance of doubt PRS has no mechanism to directly facilitate a request for the reassignment of a member’s royalties to a production company, our processes are solely aimed at facilitating redirection requests from members. We will be urgently contacting the children’s production company notified to us last week to reinforce the point that they aren’t authorised by PRS to encourage or action any re-assignment of royalties”.

Hitting out at Moonbug over its efforts to grab the writer’s share of performing rights royalties due on the music it commissions, Ivors Academy Chair Tom Gray says: “This underhand and coercive behaviour by Moonbug Entertainment must stop immediately. It is the latest coercive practice designed to undermine both the value of composers and the collective rights management system. No composer should agree to these terms and no music publisher should support this practice”.

Gray also notes the ongoing work instigated by the UK government in response to Parliament’s Economics Of Streaming inquiry, which – among other things – is looking at the deals agreed between music-makers and their business partners, and the possibility of new copyright laws that would impact on those deals.

“As the government considers codes of practice and the need for contract adjustment”, he goes on, “The Ivors Academy will not sit idly by and watch this kind of behaviour continue. We are looking to start publicly naming companies who we discover are abusing their position of power over writers. We ask writers to please notify us and publishers to please make certain none of their clients are using any such methods”.

The MU’s General Secretary Elect Naomi Pohl also criticised Moonbug’s tactics, saying: “This is a coercive practice, the commissioner is instigating the assignment of proceeds from the writer’s share, which is intended to ensure creators are properly rewarded for their work not to provide an additional revenue stream for producers”.

“We will fight back against these practices and empower writers to resist such detrimental deals”, she adds. “Getting work should not be contingent on giving up your royalties. This is the latest in a long line of royalty-grabs and shows what some companies will get away with if they’re given half the chance. The imbalance of power in commissioning relationship is too often exploited and we will defend the writer’s right to retain their royalties”.