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PRS Deputy Chair hits out at expansion of buyout deals in audio-visual commissions

By | Published on Wednesday 5 February 2020

PRS For Music

Songwriter, composer and PRS Deputy Chair Simon Darlow used a speech at the Creators Conference in Brussels on Monday to criticise moves in the media, movie and gaming industries to force the music-makers they work with to agree to ever more expansive buyout deals.

Buyouts are where a company commissioning original compositions seeks ownership of the copyright in the music the commissioned music-maker creates. The composer still gets paid an upfront fee, but – as the copyright owner – the commissioning company won’t have to pay future royalties to the music-maker whenever their music is used.

Deals of this kind aren’t new, especially in the UK and US. However, there has traditionally been a distinction between the mechanical rights and the performing rights in the music created, with the commissioner grabbing the former, but the latter remaining with the composer’s collecting society.

The newer trend is commissioners seeking ownership of the performing rights too, something which – in Europe – requires manoeuvring around collecting society rules designed to stop such things.

This all became a big talking point last year after Discovery Networks in the US announced plans to force all the music-makers it works with to assign the company performing as well as mechanical rights. The TV firm subsequently dropped those plans, but music creators say they are seeing a trend of media, movie and gaming companies seeking ever more music rights, while upfront fees remain – at best – static.

Darlow has, among many other things, composed music for numerous TV programmes, hence his interest in this particular music rights debate. Speaking at the event organised by the European Composer And Songwriter Alliance, he said: “The transfer of these rights is all too often a precondition of the commissioning process”.

“The buyout of the mechanical right has become standard practice in the US and the UK. Although there are still companies which will share mechanicals with the composer, buy-outs are becoming increasingly common here in [Continental] Europe. More and more, however, we hear of composers also being forced to surrender their performing rights. This is also against a background of shrinking fees, which makes the situation intolerable”.

Referencing stats gathered by UK songwriter organisation The Ivor’s Academy, he went on: “The most striking results of the survey are those which show the true nature of the relationship between producers and creators. For example, 41% of creators said they had been required to give away more of their mechanical rights than they wanted and a further 35% said they have been subject to full buyouts or work for hire commissions in the last five years”.

“Young composers are the most at risk of being exploited”, he added, “eager as they are to get work and build their careers. The next generation of composers face a bleak future, where they no longer own their rights and their works generate no income for them”.

All of that said, Darlow acknowledged that there are scenarios where a complete buyout deal might be appropriate, providing the upfront fee reflected the wider transfer of rights. In particular in markets where the collection of subsequent performance royalties is inefficient or non-existent.

“As an example”, he said, “I’m in the middle of some work for a Middle Eastern TV company where performing rights are barely recognised, so a good fee and the maintenance of all my rights should there be any further international exploitation was the best deal I could do”.

However, he added, “in general, buyouts devalue the composer’s worth considerably. The key is that it must be the choice of the creator to decide, not for the producers to dictate”.

Concluding with a rallying call, he said lawmakers should “ensure the copyright protections around the world work in protecting creators and their rights”, while “the creative community needs to stand together on this issue and say with one voice that we will not work on these terms”.