There’s been much written about Universal Music Group’s (“UMG”) decision to remove its recordings catalogue from TikTok in recent weeks. This excellent analysis by Peter Csathy is worth a read and I’d also recommend Music Business Worldwide who announced the story on 31st January. It’s important to remember that this issue is primarily about sound recordings (master rights) although Universal may up the ante by insisting that TikTok also removes song copyrights controlled by Universal Music Publishing Group (“UMPG”). This would be highly problematic for TikTok and would involve the removal of recordings owned by Sony Music and Warner Music labels together with many independent record labels.

What’s interesting from a sync perspective is how this battle of goliaths impacts day-to-day deals. To put this into context, let’s consider some historical examples with respect to compositions (publishing rights).

It’s common that when new platforms launch, they do so without the necessary blanket public performance licences in place with local Performing Right Organisations (“PRO”) such as the UK’s PRS for Music. This was the case in the UK with Facebook, Snapchat, X (formerly Twitter), TikTok, Twitch and others. This matters because music publishers’ sync licences typically grant rights to licensees subject to all relevant broadcasters and platforms having appropriate PRO licences in place. Given that Resilient acts for brands who want to leverage their marketing communications content across multiple platforms, these restrictions could potentially put our clients in breach of licence. When exploring this topic, I recall conversations with music publisher sync teams who took the following view: The publisher would turn a blind eye to platforms without PRO licences if they were part of a broader deal involving licensed platforms, in return for a substantial fee. However, if the activation was solely for an unlicensed platform, an additional public performance fee would apply, over and above the sync fee, to sufficiently compensate the publisher for rights that couldn’t otherwise be licensed by the PRO. Whilst this solution wasn’t perfect, it was a practical workaround that allowed brands to share content on platforms who weren’t, in the words of some critics, “not playing ball”. Meanwhile, business could continue as normal recognising that, at some point, proper PRO licences would be put in place.

Since then, Facebook and TikTok have secured public performance licences in the UK with PRS for Music, though as of February 2024, X (formerly Twitter) and Twitch remain unlicensed.  

What’s the connection with the current UMG TikTok issue?

As Peter Csathy highlights, UMG controls 32% of global recorded music market share. This strength would have arguably informed the strategic decision to “take on” TikTok that many others would have shied away from. The removal of UMG recordings from the platform has had real world consequences with users seeing notices such as “Sound removed due to copyright restrictions” as referenced in this Wired article. This is a B2C issue for music fans who can no longer soundtrack their TikTok videos with music by UMG artists.

However, there’s a B2B issue here in the sync world.

At the time of writing, UMG is not allowing the inclusion of TikTok as a platform within sync deals for brand campaigns, even if it’s part of a broader use involving licensed platforms. This represents a key difference from the historical examples referenced above and may give some brands pause for thought when selecting music. A useful workaround is to choose different music by non-UMG artists for TikTok activations while UMG controlled recordings can be used on other platforms subject to the appropriate master sync licences being in place.

We shall continue to monitor this issue with interest, and perhaps in time, a solution may be found whereby UMG recordings return to TikTok.

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