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The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) is a not-for-profit performance rights organization that protects its members' musical copyrights by monitoring public performances of their music, whether via a broadcast or live performance, and compensating them accordingly.

ASCAP collects licensing fees from users of music created by ASCAP members, then distributes them back to its members as royalties. In effect, the arrangement is the product of a compromise: when a song is played, the user does not have to pay the copyright holder directly, nor does the music creator have to bill a radio station for use of a song.

In 2008, ASCAP collected over US$933 million in licensing fees and distributed US$817 million in royalties to its members, with an 11.3% operating expense ratio.[1] In the United States, ASCAP competes with two other performing rights organizations: Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) and the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC).



ASCAP was founded by composer Victor Herbert in New York City on February 13, 1914, to protect the copyrighted musical compositions of its members, who were mostly writers and publishers associated with New York’s Tin Pan Alley. ASCAP’s earliest members included the era’s most active songwriters – Irving Berlin, Otto Harbach, James Weldon Johnson, Jerome Kern and John Philip Sousa. Subsequently, many other prominent songwriters became members. As of July 2009, ASCAP membership includes over 360,000 songwriters, composers and music publishers.[2]

In 1919, ASCAP and the Performing Rights Society of Great Britain, PRS, signed the first reciprocal agreement for the representation of each other’s members’ works in their respective territories. Today, ASCAP has global reciprocal agreements and licenses the US performances of hundreds of thousands of international music creators.

ASCAP and Manhattan School of Music summer campers participate in daily symphonic band rehearsals. Since 1999, the two institutions have partnered with to offer a free music camp for students who attend New York City's public schools.

The advent of radio in the 1920s brought an important new source of income for ASCAP. Radio stations originally only broadcast performers live, the performers working for free. Later, performers wanted to be paid, and recorded performances became more prevalent. ASCAP started collecting license fees from the broadcasters. Between 1931 and 1939, they could increase rates by over 400%.[3]

Jazz, blues, country, and swing soundtracked the 1930s, and ASCAP members Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Gene Autry and Jimmie Rodgers entertained the nation even as the Great Depression took hold.[4] In 1940, when ASCAP tried to double its license fees again, radio broadcasters started to boycott ASCAP and formed their own royalty agency, named Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI). During a ten-month period lasting from January 1 to October 29, 1941, no music licensed by ASCAP (1,250,000 songs) was broadcasted on NBC and CBS radio stations. Instead, they played more regional music and styles (like rhythm & blues or country) that had been traditionally neglected by ASCAP. Eventually, the differences between ASCAP and the broadcasters were settled, and ASCAP agreed to fees much lower than in the preceding years.

ASCAP’s membership diversified further in the 1940s, bringing along jazz and swing greats like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Fletcher Henderson. The movies also soared in popularity during the 30s and 40s, and with them came classic scores and songs by new ASCAP members like Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, Morton Gould and Jule Styne. Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein brought their revered classical compositions into the ASCAP repertory in the 1940s.[5]

In the 1950s and 1960s, television was introduced as a new revenue stream for ASCAP, one that maintains its importance today. With the birth of FM radio, new ASCAP members like John Denver, Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones, Janis Joplin and Carly Simon scored massive hits. Many Motown hits were written by ASCAP members Ashford & Simpson, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder. Both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones licensed their works through ASCAP, and the very first country Grammy went to ASCAP writer Bobby Russell for “Little Green Apples.”[6] During this period, ASCAP also initiated a series of lawsuits to recover the position they lost during the boycott of 1941, without success.[7]

During the last three decades of the 20th century, ASCAP’s membership grew to reflect every new development in music, including funk, punk, metal, hip-hop, techno and grunge. Renowned creators ranging from Lauryn Hill and Dr. Dre to the Ramones, Slayer and John Zorn joined. ASCAP launched a Latin membership department to serve ASCAP Latin writers – Marc Anthony, Joan Sebastian and Olga Tañon among them – with the Spanish-speaking world as their audience. In 1981, ASCAP prevailed against CBS in an eleven-year-old court case challenging the ASCAP blanket license.[8][9][10]

Today, ASCAP remains one of the world's most far-reaching performing rights agencies. ASCAP licenses over 11,500 local commercial radio stations and 2000 non-commercial radio broadcasters[11], maintains reciprocal relationships with nearly 100 foreign PROs across six continents,[12] and licenses billions of public performances worldwide each year.[13] ASCAP was the first US performing rights organization to distribute royalties for performances on the Internet, and continues to pursue and secure licenses for websites, digital music providers and other new media.

Annual Awards

ASCAP honors its top members in a series of annual awards shows in seven different music categories: Pop, Rhythm and Soul, Film and Television, Latin, Country, Christian and Concert Music. In addition, ASCAP inducts jazz greats to its Jazz Wall of Fame in an annual ceremony held at the society’s New York offices, and honors PRS members that license their works through ASCAP at an annual awards gala in London.[14]

Through its annual ASCAPlus Awards program, ASCAP compensates those writers whose works are substantially performed in venues and media outside of its surveys. An independent panel reviews the applications and makes cash awards to deserving members as well as writers whose works have a unique prestige value. Award amounts begin at $100. ASCAP is the only performing rights organization with a cash awards program of this kind.[15]

"I Create Music" EXPO

In April 2006, ASCAP inaugurated its annual ASCAP “I Create Music” EXPO, the first national conference fully dedicated to songwriting and composing. The first EXPO featured workshops, panels, mentor sessions and performances with notable figures from all music genres and sectors of the music industry. The most recent EXPO took place between April 23 and 25, 2009. Highlights included interviews and panels with Jeff Lynne, Wyclef Jean, Natasha Bedingfield and Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, among other notable songwriters and industry insiders.[16]

Member benefits

ASCAP was the first American PRO to offer a package of exclusive benefits to its members. Currently these benefits include:[17]

  • Discount on membership to the Songwriters Hall of Fame
  • Membership in USAlliance Federal Credit Union
  • Discounts on health, dental, instrument and life insurance via the MusicPro program
  • Discount on ASCAP Web Tools, a set of internet-based marketing and sales tools developed by Nimbit, Inc. for ASCAP members
  • Discounts on music-related retail products and services
  • Hotel and rental car discounts

Playback magazine

ASCAP distributes to its members Playback, a magazine highlighting the progress and career accomplishments of ASCAP’s writer and publisher members. Playback content is also available to the general public on ASCAP’s website.[18]


ASCAP attracted media attention in 1996 when it threatened Girl Scouts of the USA and Boy Scouts of America camps that sang ASCAP's copyrighted works at camps with lawsuits for not paying licensing fees.[19] These threats were later retracted,[20] however they have drawn negative attention for cracking down on licensing fees on other occasions as well, such as when they demand that open mic events need to pay licensing (even if most or all of the songs are original).[21]

ASCAP has also been criticized for its extremely non-transparent operations, including the refusal to release attendance records for board members, the notes from board meetings, and the reasoning behind their weighting formulas which determine how much money a song or composition earns for use on TV or radio.[22]

In 2009, an ASCAP rate court case regarding ringtones generated considerable public attention. Critics claimed that ASCAP may seek to hold consumers responsible for a ringtone public performance.[23] In statements to the press, ASCAP noted the following:

  • It is seeking to ensure that wireless carriers pay ASCAP members a share of the substantial revenue that mobile operators derive from content (like ringtones) that uses ASCAP members’ music. This content includes the delivery of full track songs, music videos, television content, ringtones and ringback tones.
  • It has been licensing wireless carriers and ringtone content providers since 2001, and that it is not in any way seeking to charge consumers.
  • It is striving to license those that make a business of transmitting its members’ music. This holds true for any medium where businesses have been built by using this music as content or a service – whether terrestrial broadcast, satellite, cable, Internet or wireless carriers providing audio and video content.[24]

On October 14, 2009, a federal court ruled that "when a ringtone plays on a cellular telephone, even when that occurs in public, the user is exempt from copyright liability, and [the cellular carrier] is not liable either secondarily or directly." The ruling is an important victory for consumers, making it clear that playing music in public, when done without any commercial purpose, does not infringe copyright. (US v. ASCAP, US District Court, Southern District of New York)[25]

See also


  1. ^ Press release about ASCAP's 2008 Collections
  2. ^ [1] "It's Now or Never!"
  3. ^ TED Talk: Larry Lessig, minute 6:00
  4. ^ "History of ASCAP: the 1930s"
  5. ^ "History of ASCAP: the 1940s"
  6. ^ "History of ASCAP: the 1960s"
  7. ^ "ASCAP versus BMI"
  8. ^ "History of ASCAP: the 1970s"
  9. ^ "History of ASCAP: the 1980s"
  10. ^ "History of ASCAP: the 1990s"
  11. ^ [2] "ASCAP Payment System: Who Does ASCAP Collect From?"
  12. ^ [3] "Affiliated Foreign Societies"
  13. ^ [4] "ASCAP Payment System: Introduction"
  14. ^ [5] "ASCAP Events and Awards"
  15. ^ ]] "ASCAPlus Awards Information"
  16. ^ [6] "ASCAP "I Create Music" Expo 2009"
  17. ^ [7] ASCAP Member Benefits
  18. ^ [8] ASCAP Playback
  19. ^ "Birds sing, but campers can’t - unless they pay up" Lisa Bannon
  20. ^ "ASCAP Changes Its Tune; Never Intended to Collect Fees for Scouts' Campfire Songs, Group Says" Ken Ringle
  21. ^ Play it again... and we'll sue
  22. ^ "ASCAP Since AFJ2 - A Series of Unfortunate Events" by Mark Holden, Film Music Magazine, May 22, 2005
  23. ^ "ASCAP Makes Outlandish Copyright Claims on Cell Phone Ringtones" Electronic Frontier Foundation, Electronic Frontier Foundation, July 2, 2009
  24. ^ [9] "ASCAP Brief Pushes Royalty for Ringtones", June 20, 2009
  25. ^ [10] "Court Rules That Phones Ringing in Public Don't Infringe Copyright" Electronic Frontier Foundation, October 15, 2009

Further reading

  • This Business of Music by Sidney Shemel; M William Krasilovsky. New York : Billboard Publications, 1990. ISBN 0823077063
  • "This Business of Songwriting By Jason Blume. Billboard Books, 2006 ISBN 0823077594
  • All You Need to Know About the Music Business By Donald S. Passman. Simon and Schuster, 2003. ISBN 0743246373

External links



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