Bob Dylan has apparently sold the copyright in his entire catalogue to Universal Music for an estimated $300m USD.

But what does that mean, exactly? This line from the New York Times article stood out to me:

Dylan’s deal includes 100 percent of his rights for all the songs of his catalog, including both the income he receives as a songwriter and his control of each song’s copyright.

Before I explain why that’s interesting, let’s quickly discuss copyright and compositions.

In a future post, I’ll be breaking down all of the elements of music copyright. For now, it’s enough to know that a songwriter’s copyright in a composition can be divided into two parts – a writer’s share and a publisher’s share. The former is meant to compensate the songwriter themselves. The latter is meant to compensate a “music publisher” for commercializing a composition. If you don’t sign a publishing deal (or give away these rights elsewhere), then as a songwriter you would own both the writer’s share and publisher’s share of copyright in your composition.

Why “Publisher’s Share”

Once upon a time, “music publishers” were sheet music publishers – people who printed and sold sheet music. Their “share” referred to the split between them and the songwriter when sheet music was performed or exploited. Today, the term encompasses all exploitation of a composition when it is sold, licensed or performed. This can include everything from collecting royalties from performing rights organizations (like SOCAN) that collect and distribute royalties when a composition is performed, to sync deals (where a composition is “synced” to visual media – e.g. a song is used in a movie).

What’s Interesting About Dylan’s Deal?

Typical publishing deals fall into one of three categories:

  1. Publishing Administration Deal – songwriter retains ownership, but pays a publishing company typically 10-25% of the publisher’s share to collect royalties and seek opportunities
  2. Co-Publishing Deal – songwriter and publishing company co-own the publisher’s share, often 50/50
  3. Publishing Buyout Deal – publisher buys out the publisher’s share entirely (songwriter keeps the writer’s share)

A lot of factors will determine which makes the most sense for an artist and publisher, including the size (or existence) of an advance (in the cases of 1 or 2), the size of a buy-out, the length of the deal and any reversion of rights, what each side is bringing to the table, etc.

Back to the NYT quote – the quote seems to suggest Dylan sold not just his publisher’s share, but also his writer’s share. That is an entirely different, and less typical kind of buy-out (the kind that you sometimes hear nightmare stories about). Assuming the quote is accurate and provides a full picture, Dylan would no longer receive any songwriting royalties when his compositions are performed. Interestingly, the deal does not include future works.

So that’s what I thought was surprising. A lot of artists hold on to their writer’s share because it feels personal – it’s the part of copyright that compensates you specifically for your songwriting. But for an artist in the late stages of a career, maybe it makes sense to cash out on the past, while still looking forward.

3 thoughts on “Bob Dylan Sold His Copyright… What Does That Mean?

  1. So if I’m following this correctly, Dylan would have to pay to perform his own songs if there wasn’t a caveat for it in the deal?

    1. It’s more accurate to say he wouldn’t receive a performance royalty. Someone would have to pay though… When a musician plays a music venue, typically that venue has a license from a performing rights organization like SOCAN. Assuming he’s performing his song in a licensed venue, the royalty payment for his performance of the songs Universal bought would now go to Universal.

Leave a Reply