Fight, fight, fight for school song rights

The Stanford Cardinal band performs during the NCAA Basketball Tournament on March 22, 2008.

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KAI RYSSDAL: So there are a couple of "givens" as basketball's March Madness marches on this week. There will be upsets and, if you watch enough games, you'll be humming fight songs into next week. But it's not all just team spirit and nostalgia. There are a lot of people making money off university and college fight songs, as Tanya Ott reports from Birmingham, Alabama.


TANYA OTT: Scott Clayton has a nightmare and it sounds like this:

(Fight song plays)

SCOTT CLAYTON: Sometimes you get some crazy people that will come in here and decide they want to push them all at the same time. So it kinda sounds like a swarm of bees is just going throughout the whole store and it makes you just want to . . . your head explodes sometimes!

Clayton manages Bama Fever/Tiger Pride, a school spirit shop in Birmingham where you can buy everything from bottle openers to pet toys embedded with microchips that play the fight songs for the University of Alabama and Auburn University. It got so bad, Clayton resorted to moving most musical items behind the sales counter.

CLAYTON: So that way they have to ask us if they want it.

And boy do they want it -- to the tune of $100,000 a year. That's what Manhattan-based music publisher Carlin America makes on fight songs. Carlin bought the rights to more than 100 such songs when it acquired another publishing company in 1999.

CAROLINE BEINSTOCK:At the time it was a pretty sleepy catalogue with which not much had been done.

But the market woke up, says Carlin President Caroline Beinstock, thanks to sports video games and cell phone ring tones.

BEINSTOCK: And that's always the hope, is that you unearth a jewel that turns out to be valuable to you.

The fight songs in that catalog may have been Carlin's diamond in the rough. But they're useless to schools like Alabama and Auburn. They make money by licensing the logos on these tchotchkes, but they don't make a penny from the music.

Susan Smith is Auburn's school licensing director.

SUSAN SMITH: All your tailgaiting items in here...

She wades through an office packed with orange and blue "stuff." The school makes more than $2 million a year licensing everything from barbecues to Christmas ornaments. But it missed the chance to cash in on its fight song back in the '50s. That's when a loyal alumnus commissioned a New York songwriting team.

SMITH: He paid for the song to be produced and he made an assumption apparently that it was his. Back then you didn't think about having to have any attorney to sign off on everything you did.

In fact, the songwriters retained the rights. They then sold the rights on to a music publisher. Fifty years later, Carlin America bought them. Again, Carlin America's Caroline Beinstock.

BEINSTOCK: It has to be remembered that for the sake of the writer, the opportunity to earn money from the use of their composition is really what they're doing it for. I doubt that the composer felt that there was unfairness associated with this. In fact, they were all in favor of having it be represented professionally.

Everything is fair game for those composers' work these days. Door bells, car horns, even toilet seats! They're all singing college songs. And generating lots of money. A good reason for schools to fight, fight, fight to hold on to their song rights.

In Birmingham, Alabama, I'm Tanya Ott for Marketplace.

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