Rights to music in old TV shows - why all the difficulty?

I’m not asking about the legal details; I understand that initial negotiations and contracts regarding music rights in shows like WKRP in Cincinnati or The Wonder Years never anticipated the new forms of media (DVD, streaming, etc.). I’m wondering about the business decisions on the part of the rights holders that delay or prevent new media releases of already created content.

Let’s use WKRP as an example, and let’s suppose that you own the rights to a song that was used in the original production. Shout Factory comes to you and says, “We’d like to repackage and re-release WKRP. May we have the rights to your song for $X.00.” Or, I suppose, it could be some small per-unit-sold amount. It seems to me that, as the rights-holder, I can refuse and get no money at all, or I can agree (with some negotiations as to the exact amount paid) and get some additional revenue for this song. In addition, I will get additional exposure for my song, which could conceivably (although probably in a very small way) result in additional sales of my music.

What am I missing in these negotiations that causes such wrangling? Is it simply greed on the part of the rights-holders asking for prohibitively high fees? Or is there some other downside to agreeing to the use of your music that I’m just not seeing.

I suspect that at least a portion of the difficulty may lie in locating and obtaining agreement and consent from multiple co-owners of copyrighted content. The location issue is probably not terribly burdensome (except in the case where the original copyright holder may have died and who their heirs are is unclear or the heirs are difficult to locate), but I suspect that getting more than one co-owner of copyrighted materials might pose an issue.

Also, I’m thinking that there is some likelihood that the overall profit margin on something like a repackaged and rereleased WKRP compilation might be fairly slim and the added expense of dealing with the situation renders it non-existent.

Or it might be that the projected profit margins are already fairly close to non-existent and blaming it on the music rights is a convenient way to explain the lack to the (probably) relatively small number of fans who keep asking.

This is a guess, but I assume when they got the rights originally, they got them from one or two major rights holders (maybe rights distributors is a better word?). The shows producers (or whoever) picked music from a pool of songs they had rights to use.

Those rights holders may have had those rights for a limited period of time, and no longer have rights for many of the songs. Now, instead of dealing with a couple of distributors, they would need to check every song individually. Which would mean listening to every episode, identifying every song, then tracking the current rigths holders down, one by one. Much more work. And OMG, don’t miss a little snippet of music…

Plus a major network show may have more funds available to spend on rights, compared to a DVD release that may be of limited interest.

What really confuses me is something I just encountered the other day: music used in the DVD release is different from music used in the iTunes version.

Specifically, I’m talking about S2 E1 of the old Aaron Sorkin show Sports Night. I re-watch this show in its entirety every now and then, and since (1) I’m trying to see whether I can do without my Blu-ray player and (2) it’s only $30 for both seasons I decided to buy the series on iTunes. I noticed that two pieces of music in this episode are different: first is the song used at the very beginning of the show, when Casey is shown waiting out the 90-day statute of limitations after Dana’s engagement ends. I can’t remember the name or artist of the song on the DVD (it isn’t well-known), but it’s definitely not what’s on iTunes. The iTunes song is ok, though, and makes sense with the scene/story. What I can’t forgive is the second different song, which is used when Casey finally kisses Dana. On the DVD it’s the excellent “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss),” which is an absolutely perfect fit for the scene, but the iTunes version has some generic piece of synthesized instrumental crap!

Color me very surprised that two songs used on the DVD were changed for iTunes, especially when one of the songs was never popular.

I am under the impression that the main problem is, in its original version, the only way to get the music was to stick a cassette recorder’s microphone up against the speaker and hope that there was no outside noise (e.g. a car driving by outside), and even then, it wasn’t a very good quality, and each generation of copy would degrade it.

With a DVD or other digital video version, the sound quality is excellent, and every copy is just as excellent. You can imagine how the studios that own the rights to those particular recordings feel about that. It’s not just older shows, either; this is almost certainly the primary reason past seasons of So You Think You Can Dance? have never been released on video. (They could replace it with “soundalike” music, but something tells me the choreographers would throw major fits as they feel the particular artist’s music is an intrinsic part of the routine.)

Seems fairly straightforward after I gave it some thought… the licensing for including a song in a show that got broadcast, maybe again in reruns - still seems a far cry from purchasing a physical media version of the show (and song), bringing it home for watching/listening many times. Kinda makes sense I guess…

Also worth noting, the DVD released versions of Beverly Hills, 90210 had the music (mainly played while at the Peach) redubbed for release. Annoying, since the Peach Pit had a “retro” vibe, they played some decent 60s music on occasion… thankfully they didn’t have to mess with the Color Me Badd appearance, hahaha

I have some guesses, but it seems like there should be a easy answer since I hear about this often enough. The biggest offender seems to be the Wonder Years so I went to their wiki page and there’s no answer in the article (but they do talk about it). However, there’s a dead link at the bottom called “Thommes, Matt (June 24, 2007). “The Wonder Years on DVD: costly music licensing | Matt Thommes”. Matthom.com. Retrieved 2013-03-26.”

Doing some Googling it looks like they’re getting ready to re-release The Wonder Years with the original music and they say it was over a million dollars to secure the rights to it all.

One can only hope/dread that in a few years, with the increasing versatility of digital media, the rights issues can simply be foisted upon the consumers…

You’re basically talking about having to track down the copyright owners of dozens, maybe hundreds of songs - including even any song of which only a few seconds is heard on the show - and pay them all. If they can be found at all; it’s not always clear who owns a copyright, and the only way to clear up the matter would be an expensive lawsuit that would cost the project even more money. And since they were often popular songs the fees are likely high. It’s expensive and a real pain, which is why WKRP has languished for so long in copyright hell.

And “I’d rather get nothing than see someone else profit” is a common attitude among copyright holders of all kinds, not just musical ones.

They also had the entire season run on Amazon Prime recently, and entire episodes were missing due to music rights, including the CMB episode - and you’d think that CMB would want the exposure! There were some other notable episodes missing with a heavy music scene - like Scotty shooting himself and Steve going to New Mesico to find his mom. They did save other episodes, but dubbed in new music, including an absolutely terrible nostalgic/motivational song in the graduation episode.

It’s really a shame.

A pre-DVD example: The Corey/Corey vehicle License to Drive contained a montage sequence which featured the song “(Nothin’ but) Trouble” by Nia Peeples, which was used in the theatrical release as well as TV broadcasts. The VHS version, however, inexplicably changed the song to “New Sensation” by INXS (which you’d think would have cost more money, but whatever.) The DVD release uses the original song.

I think this issue first came to fame, so to speak, with the release of the soundtrack for George Harrison and friends’ “Concert For Bangla Desh”. All those different artists signed to different recording companies. Makes me wonder about what they went through to release the soundtrack to “Woodstock”.

I’d imagine LP issues to accompany (or follow) the films were on the minds of the organizers, and the bands probably signed releases - they all knew they was being filmed and recorded

Also, different rules apply to live or alternate recordings of songs. This is why some bands will re-record songs for compilations when they have difficulty obtaining the rights to their early hits (e.g. Styx “Lady”)

Part of the issue is that the profits for music licensing in general have plummeted so severely and music companies have cut staff to such a large extent that each company might have just one underpaid person—if that—responsible for handling license requests. These people are now so severely underpaid and overworked that they don’t stay in these positions for long and the companies don’t give them any leeway to bargain with licensees.

Synchronization licenses—licensing for use in movies and TV—are just a small proportion of licensing overall.

I surmise that the upshot is that the licensors take “take it at the list price or fuck off because I don’t make enough money to deal with this bullshit” attitude to DVD releases.

It’s not that different rules apply. It’s that if you are making a recording anew then you hold the rights yourself—provided you are paying royalties to the composer.

Also “we couldn’t secure the rights” most likely means “we didn’t want to pay what they asked for.”

Like owners of real property, owners of intellectual property might prefer to let a property remain unused for a while rather than lower the rental price—and thus the measured value—of the property.

I’m not questioning this or anything, but do you have any idea why the bolded part above has happened? Is it because of piracy?

That’s what the music industry believes, and the timeline would seem to support that belief.

Legal Online downloads and streaming—which came much later—offer very measly returns compared to CD sales pre-Internet.

The issue is simply that, for pre-VCR shows, the producers never set up any mechanism for the use of the rights in recorded media. If you use existing music on a show, you pay for the use of the rights.

Before recorded media, the contracts did not grant them the rights for VCR, DVD, etc. (for obvious reasons). Since the producers never licensed the rights for VCR, they have no legal right to use the songs.

So they have to go to the rights owner. It can be difficult and expensive to track them down. Further, the rights owner can ask for any amount he deems right for the licensing. It can be expensive – so much so that the producers can’t make a profit creating the DVD. Now, they can negotiate the price downward, but don’t have a very strong position: either they buy the rights or they can’t do their show.

It can be dealt with for a small number of songs, but WKRP had several songs each episode. The time and money adds up.

The TV producers are also unlikely to use the songs without getting permission because they don’t want people to use their material without permission.

Nowadays, contracts are written to take the possibility of putting the show out on other media (a standard clause nowadays says the rights are even granted for media not yet invented). And only a handful of older shows have a problem with that (most shows had staff-written music).