The Impossible Road to Hell: A Copyright Journey

I feel like this is as good a time as any to share with you, dear reader, how hard it can be for a common mortal man, such as myself, to do some things legally. I will take this moment to regale you with the tale of my attempt to use a song for an internet video. (I will try to relay the information correctly; I didn’t write down everything as it occurred, so I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies.) For those of you who have not yet seen my promotional video for my novel, Lucifer, I recommend checking it out before reading this blog post.

The classical piece, Dance of the Hours, was not actually the original choice for music in the video. No, when Shaun Winters, the video’s cinematographer, director, editor (and doer of everything else) finished the initial editing, he used Hell by the Squirrel Nut Zippers as the background music. It wasn’t actually intended as music that would remain in the final version, but it was so fitting that I foolishly felt I should try and legally obtain the rights to use the song.

With my thorough lack of knowledge of music copyright, I decided to inspect the ASCAP website. Hearing that registering with ASCAP was a requirement for DJs being able to play songs, I figured this would be a good place to start. While they did provide licenses for many uses, I was informed that they did not provide such things for single internet videos. I then sent off an e-mail to the band to get some help, but I didn’t receive a response. So, I felt it would be prudent to research more about the song and its record label.

The original label to publish Hot by the Squirrel Nut Zippers – the album that contained the track – was Mammoth Records, which was bought out by Hollywood Records, a subsidiary of Disney Music. Browsing through the Hollywood Records website did not elicit any information about the Squirrel Nut Zippers, or even contact information that I could find, for that matter. Inspection on the Disney Music website led to similar information (i.e. none); even clicking on the link for contact information sent me to a frequently asked questions page, one that strangely lacked any contact information. So, the next logical step was a telephone directory for California, where there actually were several numbers for which to reach Disney Studios. One phone call gave me a recording, instructing me to phone another number for the licensing department. Doing so actually provided me with an e-mail address I could use for queries.

Now I have to admit that my e-mail to Disney was met with an extremely quick response. Unfortunately, I was informed that Hell by the Squirrel Nut Zippers was not a song to which Disney owned the rights. The contact from Disney gave me the information for the two companies listed on the ASCAP website as holding the rights to the song, Hot But Sweet and Strep Throat Music. Both were shown as having the same address and contact information. I tried calling the shared number but, alas, the phone was no longer in service. I also tried my luck sending an e-mail to the shared address but, to my great surprise, a response never came back.

Not knowing where else to go with this, I sent the songwriter, Tom Maxwell, a query over ReverbNation, at which point he told me the rights were currently held by Warner/Chappell. I contacted the company and they told me that they did, in fact, hold the rights. I could hardly contain my excitement! After such a long period of dead ends – I had been at it for over a month at this point – I was finally nearing the end of my quest. I sent in all the information that was requested and I was given a go-ahead on using the song.

Aaaarg!…Except, Warner/Chappell held the rights to the song as written by Tom Maxwell, but they did not hold the master use rights for the Squirrel Nut Zippers recording. I was instructed by those at Warner/Chappell that Universal currently held those rights so, naturally, I sent in a request to Universal and they, naturally, told me that this was not in fact true. I asked the contact at Universal if he had any advice on where to go from here, but did not receive a response. I followed up with Warner/Chappell with a similar query and also received nothing as a reply. I went back to Maxwell to see if he knew the master use holder; he said Disney.

Without anyone coming forward as the master use holder, I asked my contact at Warner/Chappell if I could pay them and either use the recording or commission someone to perform it. I was informed that, without securing the elusive master use rights, I would not be able to get the rights from Warner/Chappell. Feeling around feebly for answers on the internet, I happened back upon the ASCAP website, and noticed that both companies listed as holding the rights mentioned BMG in their addresses. Thus, as a last ditch effort, I sent a query out to BMG in Germany; I received a reply asking me to verify the information but, after doing so, no follow-up came to me.

So, after a long and arduous process, I did not obtain the rights. After talking it over with Shaun, we decided that something old enough to fall under fair use in copyright law would be good to pursue, given the lack of time left to get the video finished and up on the internet. I ended up deciding on Dance of the Hours, and purchased a royalty-free copy of the recording. I very much enjoy the video with the new music, but I’m still completely shocked with how ludicrously difficult it is to use a song legally for a brief video that will only be posted for a campaign that lasts one month. And I’m also sad to say that my journey ended in utter failure.