Law Office of Deborah E. Johnson, Esq.

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5 Things an Indie Artist Should Know about Entertainment Law

Posted on February 3, 2015 at 4:35 PM


5 Things an Indie Artist should know about Entertainment Law

Written by Deborah E. Johnson, Esq.

1. Hire an Entertainment or Music Lawyer.

Many artists, especially independent artists, fail to see the importance of hiring an entertainment/music lawyer. Some artists feel that it is not in their budget or that it is not a priority. Hiring a music lawyer is of such importance that an artist should budget that cost in just like they would budget for production fees, artwork, etc. A music lawyer is an investment in an artist’s career; not only that, but it may not cost the artist as much as generally thought. My law office makes every effort to make services affordable for the independent artist, and many times I will flat fee items so that the artist can budget for that cost.

What I tell clients is that you cannot afford NOT to hire a music lawyer. WHY? You are an artist! You are not trained in the law of music. Even if you are an artist that is music law savvy, your mindset is still that of an artist. Don’t get me wrong. I have met my share of educated artists; however, the artist mind is not constantly thinking of ways to protect their intellectual property while creating it. That is my job! A music lawyer will assist the artist in the protection and preservation of their intellectual property. Not only that, but the artist may be losing money without proper legal counsel. Additionally, music lawyers can assist artists with negotiations and contract review. This allows the artist to be an artist while maximizing their dollar as an ARTIST.

2. Always copyright your music.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make as an artist is failing to properly copyright your music. Your music lawyer can assist with the copyrighting, but there are those artists that feel comfortable registering their own copyrights.

A copyright tells the rest of the world who owns an original work, as well as enables its creator to bring legal action for infringement as well as expands those remedies under the law. Artists will often use or hear the term ‘poor man’s copyright.’ I do not recommend using the poor man’s method because you will not receive those additional protections set in place under federal law as when a work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Once a piece of music has been created, the creator should seek to register the work with the copyright office as soon as possible. This is fairly inexpensive and well worth the money.

Additionally, artists should be aware that there are 2 types of copyrights. The first is called the Sound Recording (SR). Form SR should be used when registering a published or unpublished sound recording. This form is limited to the sound recording itself. Form SR can also be used when an artist is registering both the sound recording and the underlying work as long as the claimant is the same for both. Form PA (Performing Arts) should be used when a claimant is registering the underlying work only, such as a musical composition.

Copyrights on registered works, registered after Jan. 1, 1978 are protected for the life of the creator plus 70 years. More information on copyrights can be located at:

NOTE: Registration with the U.S. Copyright office may or may not necessarily provide copyright protection internationally.

3. Register with a Performing Rights’ Organization (PRO).

There are basically three major PROs. BMI, ASCAP, and SECAC. They all do basically the same thing – track, calculate, and pay the songwriter(s) for royalties earned. This is especially imperative if you are a singer/songwriter. Some PROs require a small fee to join, while others are by invitation only.

A PRO represents songwriters, music publishers, and composers. The PRO’s main function is to collect license fees on your behalf, when your music is played on radio stations, news media, internet, satellite, hotels, clubs, concerts, and other businesses. A percentage of those royalties are then forwarded to the songwriter(s). Songwriter’s should be aware that they may only affiliate with one PRO at a time; so choose wisely.

Songwriters should also consider setting up their own publishing company. A music publisher’s sole purpose is to ensure that songwriters receive royalties when their compositions are exploited commercially. Additionally, there is no objection to registering will all three PROs simultaneoulsy as a music publisher (contrary to songwriter’s affiliation mentioned above).


Below are the web addresses for BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC:

4. Register with Sound Exchange (SE).

Sound Exchange is a fairly new service with its sole purpose to administer services to stream artist content. Translation: SE tracks and pays out to artists on digital performance royalties. Sound Exchange also collects and distributes those royalties back to the artist when the content is played on a non-interactive digital source. Do not confuse this service with that of a PRO. Further good news is that there is no fee to join Sound Exchange.

Below are a list of the benefits to joining Sound Exchange borrowed directly from their faq page:

a. Maximize your revenue through foreign royalty collections.

b. Join the effort to fight for long-term value of music.

c. Conference and equipment discounts.

Additionally, this linked article about SE further demonstrates that is a growing service and provides helpful in understanding how its service works.

5. ALWAYS complete Song Split Sheet Agreements when you are in the recording studio.

I cannot express the value and importance of song split sheet agreements. Song split sheets delineate the songwriter’s percentage of ownership and contribution when a musical composition is created. Song split sheets should always be signed after a song is written/recorded but before everyone leaves the studio. When split sheets are not signed in the studio, a musical composition’s authorship can be questioned or disputed. This can cause issues when copyrighting works and registering songs with PROs. Split sheet should include each of the songwriter’s name & authorship, each songwriter’s percentage of contribution, and the name of the registered PRO for each song author. Publishing percentages can also be included, which I highly recommend. Songwriter’s contribution percentages and publishing percentages may differ on the same split sheet. Basic song split agreements can be located online or my law firm can provide and explain a blank song split agreement for a small nominal fee.

The Law of Deborah E. Johnson, Esq. is located in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

For general information or to set up a consultation, email:

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