Music copyright and TV licensing
August 26, 2021 3:58 PM   Subscribe

There are a number of television shows that have famously had trouble seeing a DVD release or syndication due to music licensing issues: Wonder Years, WKRP in Cincinnati, etc. Is there a reason this appears to impact television, but not movies? Ferris Bueller contains a Beatles song in its entirety, but can be seen on cable tv all the time. Goodfellas contains clips from dozens of songs, etc.
posted by soonertbone to Law & Government (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Basically, the movies paid for it and probably included subsequent dvd sales in the scope of what they were paying for. The Wonder Years in particular did not include future sales rights in their song licensing, so they'd have to relicense all the music they used. Note also that there are movies like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums that use Rolling Stones songs in the movies, but those songs do not appear on the soundtrack albums for similar reasons. Even with a movie that you mention, Casino, probably the song most famously associated with that movie is "Gimme Shelter", but it's not on the soundtrack album (which is nevertheless a double album!)
posted by LionIndex at 4:04 PM on August 26, 2021 [10 favorites]

Synchronization rights.

"Negotiations for the licensing fee typically address how the work is being used, the length of the segment, the prominence of the cue (whether used as background music, the title track during the credits, or other uses), and the overall popularity and importance of the song or recording. Another point of negotiation is whether the sync license constitutes a "buyout" (i.e. whether or not the entity that will ultimately broadcast the production will be required to pay "backend" (performance royalty) fees)."

Meaning that the original contract for the music (on a song by song basis) covered only the original broadcast, not syndication rebroadcast or distribution via DVD. That would have required another contract, and the rights holders of the music wanted more money and/or the producers didn't want to go through the effort of tracking down the rights holders (which can be pretty complex for older tunes, as rights get sold and transferred via corporations merging or going out of business and people dying and etc etc etc) and negotiating new contracts.

Movies have much bigger budgets than TV and for decades have assumed that there will be home video releases and cable/network broadcasts, so they pay for the expanded rights in the first place. It's a good bet that WKRP and other TV shows paid as little as possible both for general minimizing the budget reasons and because for a long time there was a good chance that any given TV show wouldn't last long enough to get enough episodes to make it worthwhile to syndicate. 100 episodes used to be the sort of rule of thumb. So TV producers almost certainly went, "Fuck it, who knows if this thing will last long enough for syndication, just pay the minimum for original broadcast rights."

(To be perfectly honest I think the question of what is or is not on a "soundtrack album" is a bit orthogonal to this - to the best of my knowledge for a lot of movies the "soundtrack album" is really a sort of separately created endeavor meant to generate promo material for the flick and additional money for at least one of the production/distribution companies involved in the movie, since a ton of those companies also have record labels - Sony or Warner Brothers, for example. I think if a tune from the album is actually used in the movie it still requires a separate sync rights contract, but a tune can be on the "soundtrack album" even if the album/movie producers have no intention of ever putting it in the movie.)
posted by soundguy99 at 4:24 PM on August 26, 2021 [9 favorites]

I think the point with soundtracks being orthogonal to the discussion is generally true, but the examples I used all have the Rolling Stones as the common culprit, and they're notorious about licensing.
posted by LionIndex at 4:29 PM on August 26, 2021

Still, it would be fun to finally watch Murphy Brown.
posted by theora55 at 5:01 PM on August 26, 2021 [5 favorites]

Pump Up the Volume is one movie that is almost completely absent* from streaming services and music rights are thought to be the reason.

*You didn't hear it from me, but apparently it can be found on youtube, in about 20 segments.
posted by lunasol at 5:15 PM on August 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

Still, it would be fun to finally watch Murphy Brown.

And Northern Exposure.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 5:18 PM on August 26, 2021 [9 favorites]

The other thing on the rights side is that the resale of TV shows to consumers wasn't really a thing before DVD came around in the late 1990s. Not only are VHS tapes bulkier and poorer quality, but if you owned a VHS player, you by definition also had a VHS recorder so if you wanted WKRP on VHS, you'd just set the thing to tape it. There were very few TV shows available on VHS, mostly import cult shows like Blackadder (especially where there was also limited run; a box set of the entire run of Fawlty Towers is three whole VHS tapes). Negotiating the rights to resell recorded TV episodes directly to consumers when they started making WKRP is as relevant as negotiating the rights to sell 3D holograms of your burps to Elon Musk is today; it's just not something anyone would bother their lawyers with.
posted by Superilla at 5:19 PM on August 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

Another aspect not touched on already: A movie is going to be two to three hours with music to clear. A season of WKRP is nine or ten hours given 22 episodes per season at about 23 minutes per episode. If you're clearing WKRP for DVD release, you're clearing all the songs played in the season. So if you have a few holdouts per season, that's a big spanner in the works.

There are movies that haven't been released due to music rights, so it's not unheard of - but sheer volume of music to clear for TV shows that made liberal use of music is another factor.
posted by jzb at 5:21 PM on August 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

"Wayne's World" is a great example of a movie that had to be altered for broadcast. They were able to get the broadcast rights for a lot of the songs, but not "Stairway to Heaven." In the scene where Wayne goes into a music store to try out guitars, he starts playing "Stairway to Heaven" and an employee walks over, tells him to stop, and points to a sign that says "To Stairway to Heaven". If you saw it in the theatre, Wayne plays the song. On TV, they dub in something that sounds sort of like it.

Older TV shows didn't have to think about DVD release or streaming, and when those things came into existence, the rights holders wanted more money.

Newer TV shows don't necessarily license the same songs for broadcast and streaming, either. I've played on a bunch of songs that were licensed to TV shows (The Black Donnelys and Friday Night Lights in particular) where they picked a song by a well-known artist for the broadcast version, and used one of the songs I was on for the streaming or on-demand version. And the streaming versions were available the next day, so this wasn't a matter of them not being able to secure the rights. They went with a cheaper option for the streaming version because they figured it was less important (this was a few years ago, so they may do things differently now that streaming is dominant).
posted by jonathanhughes at 6:00 PM on August 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

Movies have a long history of being rebroadcast in other venues - on TV and airplanes if nothing else, long before packaged redistribution and home entertainment systems were a thing - so their contracts were generally better prepared for what happened.

Complicating the TV situation were production houses that had some kind of default usage rights at the time of production/original air because of a business relationship that came with a certain kind of pre-clearance. Some of the biggest victims of that were Beavis And Butthead and The State - MTV productions that aired on MTV and could use any music/videos already cleared to be played on MTV...which made the shows unreleasable and mostly un-rebroadcastable elsewhere, though eventually most of it was made available with filler music replacing the uncleared music or the videos were edited out which made B&B extremely short and strange in places, VH1s Behind the Music (only this summer made available on Paramount+, which is rebooting the series), and all kinds of BBC programming as they have a certain amount of leeway as publicly-funded television (and associated radio station).

But it all really comes down to "nobody thought about it" for a very long time and then "nobody could quite agree how to handle it going forward" for a while. It was definitely still really uneven in the 00s, but I think anything in production by the time we were firmly into the Box Set Era was working from fairly standardized clearance contracts.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:09 PM on August 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

There are movies that haven't been released due to music rights

Or which were released on Home Media with rescored soundtracks, at least on the original releases (which resulted in a multitude of WTFs when folks picked up, say, the original DVD version of Sixteen Candles).
posted by gtrwolf at 7:46 PM on August 26, 2021

The reference to the Rolling Stones needs a bit of clarification: the Stones do not own the rights to most of their early work. The "notorious about licensing" comment probably refers to the company that does - ABKCO. It takes some digging to find items like these two, published 45 years apart:

Rolling Stone 1975 - Variety 2020
posted by yclipse at 8:23 PM on August 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

The Chris Isaac Show had very difficult music clearance issues, which is why bootlegs abound.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:11 AM on August 27, 2021

Pump Up the Volume is one movie that is almost completely absent from streaming services and music rights are thought to be the reason.

This was just reissued earlier this year on Blu-ray by Warner Archive after a loooong absence from home video. I don't know for sure, but I would guess that streaming rights were negotiated along with the renewed home video rights, meaning that it might one day soon show up on streaming services (HBO Max?) after all.

Another well-known example is Breaking the Waves. Lars Von Trier made sure "Life on Mars" by David Bowie was featured (to devastating effect) in the theatrical release of the film; the home video version substituted the presumably less spendy "Your Song" by Elton John. (For the Criterion release several years ago the Bowie track was restored.) Also Until the End of the World, which was absent from North American home video release until music rights were renegotiated and Criterion eventually issued the full-length version. I think another example is John Carpenter's The Thing, which was missing Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" on VHS and cable TV, though it was restored for the DVD release (and all subsequent versions).
posted by Mothlight at 2:53 PM on August 30, 2021

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