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ASCAP Wins Right to Pay Some Writers Less Than Others
By Moses Avalon
(more articles from this author)
2003-06-12
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Props to The Film Music Network for the lead on this story.

A Federal Court Judge denied a motion by a veteran score composer to be paid the same amount for his work as a pop songwriter when their work is broadcast on radio, TV and the Internet.

Federal Court Judge William Conner said that ASCAP, the worlds largest Performing Rights Organization, (PRO) was within their discretion when they pay film composers only 16 cents for every $1 they pay songwriters for the exact same usage of a musical work.

Peter Myers ("Diagnosis: Murder," "The Love Boat," "Dynasty", arrangements for "American Idol") took issue with this and sued the PRO to overturn a decision by ASCAP to classify his work as a "background instrumental," instead of what he wanted, "background vocal" which carries a far higher royalty rate.

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Both ASCAP and BMI pay their members different royalty-rates for different types of performances. A performance originating from the US that has vocals singing lyrics has a status that is about 600% more than as one where the vocalist is only singing background tracks, like "ohhs" and "ahhs." (In the UK, PROs pay the same rate to their writers whether it is a song used as background or an instrumental piece used as background.)

Myers claims that ASCAP's decision to classify his work as the lower status is typical of how they treat members that are not famous pop song writers. He contends in his testimony to the court that more renown artists get paid the higher rate when their songs are used as "underscore" or background, while the thousands of other instrumental works created by lesser known composers get paid the lower rate as matter of course. He claims that this judge's decision has set back writer's rights.

If he's right, then this is a grave decision indeed. Composers over the past few years have already lost much ground in negotiation with film and commercial producers. Producers have been asking for, and receiving, "buy-outs" of the composer's performance rights, in effect making the composer's work a "work for hire," and the producer becoming the "Author" of the music that they then publish in their films and commercials. The original composer under this agreement would receive no additional performance money. Only the fee for composing. In the past, composers have had leverage to get this term out of the deal, but today's decision may make that royalty stream not worth fighting over, as it gives PROs the right to selectively enforce their own regulations with impunity.

In a statement, Myers' attorney Alan Cyrlin of the Los Angeles based law firm Wasserman, Comden, Casselman, & Pearson LLP said, "Judge Conner's ruling hurts hundreds of thousands of composers and songwriters who are members of ASCAP and other performing rights organizations."

Myers is appealing the decision.


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