What You Need to Know About Buying and Selling Royalties

Royalties and Your Business

What is a Royalty - How a Royalty Works in Business
How a Royalty Works in Business. Kevin Hauff/Getty Images

 What Are Royalties? 

Royalties are payments of various types to owners of property for use of that property. Usually royalties deal with payments for the right to use intellectual property, like copyrights, trademarks, and patents. Here are some common examples of situations where royalties are used: 

  • In music, royalties are paid to owners of copyrighted music, for its use. These are called performance royalties
  • In art and online, royalties may be paid for the use of images (sometimes called "stock photography"). 
  • Another type of royalty is a book royalty, paid to authors by publishers. 
  • Patented products are commonly licensed and royalties are paid to the patent holders. 
  • In franchised businesses, the franchise holder pays franchise royalties to the main company for the use of the name and other assets. 

This article discusses royalties that might affect your business, either as the owner of property or the purchaser of the royalty. We'll also look at tax effects of owning or purchasing royalties. 

Why Do We Have Royalties? 

Royalties protect the owner of intellectual property and allow others to use the property, giving the owner the benefit of an income from this use. Royalties also protect the buyer from claims by the owner for improper use.

The word "royalty" comes from the Middle Ages, when kings (royals) had rights because they owned land on which there were minerals.

The person who wanted the minerals would pay for the right to take these minerals out of the land.  

Today royalties might be paid for the right to use various types of intellectual property, as noted above. In each case there are two parties: 

  • The person or business that owns the intellectual property (the owner)
  • The person or business that wants to use this property (the licensee) 

How Are Royalties Paid? 

If you have intellectual property that you want to receive royalties from, there are two ways to do this: 

  • You may sell the property and receive payments from the buyer based on the revenue generated from that property. For example, you can sell the copyright to a book outright and receive royalties up front and a continuing stream of revenue based on the sales of the book. 
  • You may keep the ownership to the property and get royalties from someone for use of the property. This is called licensing. 

Royalty fees and payment amounts can be set in a variety of ways. For example, in a franchise situation, fees can be set as a fixed or variable percentage of gross sales. In many cases there is a minimum royalty. 

How Do Royalties Differ From Licenses? 

A license is right to use something that is owned by someone else, while royalties are the payments for that use. At its simplest, you have a license to drive a car or a license to own a business. The payments you make to the state agency are in effect like royalties.

If your business owns a patent on a new product, you can grant a license to someone to produce that product and sell it.

Your business is paid in one of several ways by the licensee; these are royalties. 

Licensing your business's intellectual property and getting royalties from these licenses is a common way to increase your business income. 

What Is Included in a Royalty Contract? 

While royalty contracts differ depending on the type of royalty, there are some common features in royalty contracts: 

A definition of the subject matter (the property) and who owns it, in detail, with a term that describes the  property in the contract. For example, if you are selling a group of images to an online image company like Getty Images, you would describe your images in detail (maybe with a listing) and say, "the Images" throughout. 

The scope and limits of the use of the property. For example, you might allow someone just a one-time use, or a perpetual use (license) of your images.

The payments (the royalties themselves), including when the payments are to be made, how the amount of payments is determined, and how records are to be kept. Sometimes there is an advance payment made, which the owner works off (called an "earn out"). 

In an author contract, for example, there is commonly an advance. Then, when the author's portion of royalties from book sales exceeds the amount of the advance, additional royalties are paid on sales. 

Valerie Peterson in TheBalance has more details on what an author contract might contain and how book royalties are determined. 

How Do Taxes Work on Royalty Payments and Income? 

Like other forms of payment in a business, royalties are taxable income and also a business expense. 

Royalty Payments as Expenses

If you are paying royalties to someone for purchase or use of intellectual property, these payments are legitimate business expenses. If the payments are for the purchase of property, the property becomes an asset on your business balance sheet, and they might need to be amortized (spread out over time) over time. The royalty payments are an expense on the profit and loss statement

If you are paying royalties as part of a license agreement, the royalty payments are an expense on your business tax return. 

Royalty Receipts as Income

In general, any royalties you receive are considered as income in the year when you receive them. If you receive royalty payments as income, where that income is recorded depends on whether or not you are in a business and the type of business. 

  • If you own a business and you are self-employed, you must record the income from royalties on your business tax form, depending on your business type. For example, if you are a sole proprietor or single-member LLC, you would record the income on Schedule C, as part of your personal tax return. 
  • If your business is a corporation, the corporation must show the income on its balance sheet and on tax documents. 
  • If you don't own a business, your income from royalties is recorded on Schedule E - Supplemental Income, on your personal tax return. In this example, maybe you have written a book and you have a publisher, but you haven't set up a business structure. 

If you sell the right to the intellectual property, the sales price is considered business income in the year it is received. If you receive an advance on future income from royalties, this is also business income. 

Do I Need an Attorney for a Royalty Contract? 

Royalties are, like other types of business contracts, more complicated than they might seem. If you are considering a licensing agreement or royalties agreement, use a service like Avvo to find an attorney who specializes in intellectual property law to help you through the process. 

For More Information on Royalties

The IRS has some court cases relating to royalties that you might want to review. 

Music Careers at TheBalance has a listing of terms used in music royalties