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Do Olympic Figure Skaters Have to License the Music They Skate To?

Ellen Gutoskey
Team USA's Nathan Chen during his gold medal-winning free skate at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
Team USA's Nathan Chen during his gold medal-winning free skate at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. / Jean Catuffe/Getty Images
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Last week, Team USA’s Nathan Chen nabbed Olympic gold after his free skate routine, performed to a medley of Elton John songs from the 2019 biopic Rocketman. The win prompted a congratulations tweet from the Rocket Man himself, which, judging by the fact that it didn’t mention any copyright infringement, seems to suggest that the proper music licensing protocol had been followed.

So, what exactly is that protocol?

When producers want to include copyrighted songs in filmed programs like TV shows or movies, they have to acquire a synchronization license, or “sync license,” essentially authorizing them to synchronize the music with their own video footage. As The New York Times reports, sync licensing fees can sometimes be prohibitively expensive if the song is by an Elton John-level superstar.

Luckily for figure skaters, their Olympic routines are considered live performances, and therefore require a much less costly licensing agreement. Also luckily for figure skaters, they’re pretty far removed from both the paperwork and the payment. Instead, the broadcaster—in this case, NBC—is responsible.

As IPWatchdog explains, many musicians and music publishers outsource licensing power for their entire catalogs to public rights organizations (PROs) like Broadcasting Music Inc. (BMI) and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). TV networks, performance venues, and other music-playing establishments can then buy a blanket license that grants them public performance rights to every song under the PRO’s purview. Blanket license fees aren’t one-size-fits-all; they depend on everything from audience size to frequency, and licensees are often expected to track their music use so the PROs can determine artist royalties.

But the bottom line is this: If you’re skating to “Run the World (Girls)” during your Olympic program—which France’s Maé-Bérénice Méité did at the 2018 PyeongChang Games—rest assured that NBC has taken care of making sure Beyoncé gets her check.

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