Who owns a song?
It is often challenging to determine who owns and/or administers rights to a given song. You can often get clues by seeing what publisher is listed under the song in our songbooks (Rise Up Singing, Rise Again, and Where Have All the Flowers Gone). If a song is listed as "(c) 2015 Hal Leonard Corporation" this simply means the song is in the public domain and the lyrics can be used without obtaining permission from a specific copyright owner.
You can often find out who administers print rights by using online databases. Three of these are often run by large PROs ("performing rights organizations") in that are responsible for collecting fees when copyrighted songs are broadcast or performed. They do not have anything directly to do with print rights or recordings but they all have online search engines that can help you identify who owns a given song which will help you obtain permissions.
- ASCAP The American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers. Focuses on performing rights. Has 500,000 members.
- BMI focuses on broadcast licenses and royalties (for TV, radio & films)
- SESAC is the smallest of the 3 PROsn in the US. It says it focuses more on a personal relationship with artists and also reaches out to indie / less mainstream composers and publishers.
- SOCAN is the Canadian Performing Rights Organization.
You can also use the Harry Fox Agency online database which is called "Songfile" but Harry Fox has nothing to do with issuing print licenses and print rights and mechanical rights may be owned or administered by different companies.