• JB

Don’t put a Parental Advisory Label (PAL) on your album cover artwork

I will stress up front, and will probably stress later down, that I am not a legal expert. None of this construes legal advice. This is all the discoveries of an odd person who likes to learn about odd things, and through the lens of a designer.

This odd thing though, is very relevant to you and me as we forge a path in the music and creative industries.

The PAL mark, or Parental Advisory Label, is a common sight on song covers. If you’ve ever released music yourself it’s possible you’ve used it because it seems like good sense to use it, right? Your production has a couple of swear words, or drug references, or whatever, so you put it on there. Because that’s the done thing.

Except you shouldn’t.

The PAL mark is a trademark of the RIAA, and so to use it in any form you need their agreement, and even with their agreement, you’re restricted to using it in the ways set out by that agreement.

Using it without a completed License Agreement leaves you open to potential legal action. Are they likely to notice and then carry out that action? I have absolutely no idea, but why risk being hassled down the line when it’s totally avoidable?

I only learned this very key fact a few months ago. Granted I only started up my business in February of this year, but being naturally sceptical about the world, if I didn’t know it before I started business, who’s to say others don’t, both on the artist and designer sides? Okay, how about a game…

Ready to play our drinking game for PALs? Let’s look at what’s on Twitter this very second when you search “need cover art”.

For the rules of the game we’ll say this:

  • Take a shot for every time you see a PAL variant on a piece of artwork

  • Scroll back through the last 24 hours.

  • If you see 5+ replies to a tweet of someone looking for artwork, click in and check the replies.

Okay, now that I’ve had ten shots in a row, I’m a lot more relaxed and can answer this question without feeling defensive. You might be thinking to yourself “JB, you’re being a prick, and you have no idea if the music artists using PAL on those artworks you just swigged from that bottle of Jager had actually completed a License Agreement for the PAL mark.”

You’re 100% right, I have no clue. All of those PALs you saw might be purely for concepts and not actual products. Even in that regard I don’t know if you can use a PAL mark for concept work without the agreement. I can only speak from my life experience. In my pays-the-bills job I occasionally look through contracts and license agreements for intellectual properties. I can tell you it is tedious. Legal terminology perfected over centuries that I have only a glancing understanding of and would avoid if I could in any instance. Therefore I’m assuming most others won’t want to read and sign it either.

So when I show you this License Agreement from the RIAA’s website and ask if you are willing, right now, ten drinks deep, to go through it, and ensure you understand what you’re signing up to, would you do it? I’m no expert and I saw that particular version talks about the Term for the agreement, but no where does it specify what the actual Term is. Already you might be into addendum territory.

Okay, fine, it’s basically four pages. But I’m going to highlight again you don’t need a PAL mark on your work. Why put yourself through it when you could spend that time creating and doing what you love? (Like joining the Indie Music Feedback Discord channel, which is the best music community out there!)

If you are going to use a PAL mark, with a License Agreement, remember that you are doing so for no added benefit. An extra hurdle, if you can find the answer because I asked RIAA and they didn’t reply, is where the hell do you actually send your completed agreement? The landing page for information, nor any other page I could see, tells you. If you find out, let me know.

The PAL mark is much like BBFC ratings for films in that it’s there to help the parents to “Think of the Children” and protect them. Meanwhile last time I was on a bus there were ten-year-olds smoking and giving the driver abuse. I don’t think a few drug references are going to send the youth into depravity… Or at least not more than they already are.

This is a “really, don’t quote me on this” part, but I don’t believe even films are required to be rated. It’s more of a necessary evil in that cinema chains can refuse to show a film that isn’t rated, to ensure they are family-friendly. The difference for you is that there’s no such restrictions, that I’m aware of, when putting your music on Soundcloud, Spotify, Bandcamp, etc. So again, why bother?

Perhaps the only benefit to a PAL mark is the ‘taboo’. You’re 12, but you really want to see that 15-rated film. Because the rating says you shouldn’t and might be corrupted. PAL on the music cover? Wow that’s cool grown-up music. As far as I see, that’s literally it. It’s just a question then of whether you think that’s worth all of the above.

If you’re getting artwork commissioned for your release, you need to ensure your designer isn’t throwing this mark around without understanding the very real potential consequence.

Even if you think your music won’t make any money, copyright can be protected very aggressively (as it should be, because otherwise it sets a precedent that theft is perfectly fine, which it is not). Taking some other real-world examples, Nintendo is known for closing down fan-made projects that are using its property without permission.

I’m JB, a graphic designer, who found a passion for graphic design just before I hit my 30s. I have a few years or so of experience, no formal design principles training, and a few training courses under the belt.

What drew me to working predominantly on music covers is that great meeting point of minds between what you hear and what you see.

You can find me on the Indie Music Feedback discord, on Instagram, and on Twitter.

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