Music in your Content: A Primer on Licensing Music

Increasing numbers of people are creating their own content, including on TikTok and YouTube, often featuring music. If you count yourself among those content creators, you must eventually grapple with music licensing. Music is the most common reason content is taken down on social media, and unlicensed music use can lead to potential liability for copyright infringement.

As a content creator, when you use a musician’s work without their permission, absent a few extremely limited exceptions, you are infringing on their copyright. So chances are, if you want to use someone’s music, you will first need to obtain permission. In this article, we explore the fundamentals in determining what type of license you may need.

Types of Music Copyrights

For every song, there are two primary copyrighted works: the musical composition and the sound recording. The musical composition consists of the music and any accompanying lyrics. The publishing companies commonly own the rights to the musical composition, but composers and songwriters can also hold rights.

The sound recording is the actual recorded version of the musical composition and is most often owned by the record labels. Someone who writes, records, and performs their own song can own both copyrights in the song. However, there are usually many more people involved in the making of one song. Therefore, requesting permission to use a song typically requires obtaining licenses from various parties.

Types of Licenses

A master use license is needed for use of a specific pre-recorded version of a song, or the sound recording, in either an audio or visual format. For example, to use the original recording from an artist’s album, you would need to request a license from the record label for the use of the sound recording.

Typically, master use licenses are needed in conjunction with sync licenses. A sync license is needed for use of the musical composition in a video. So, when you sync music to video, you need permission from the author of the musical composition (whether a cover or a recording of the song), which is usually the music publisher, in addition to the master use license.

You’ll need a public performance license if you plan to play the song to an audience outside of small private group of friends and family. This would include playing music at a conference, broadcasting it or utilizing the song on your website. These licenses are generally obtained through performing rights societies or organizations (PROs), which license “the public performance of nondramatic works on behalf of copyright owners of such works.”17 U.S.C. 101. A few examples of PROs include BMI and Global Music Rights.

If you want to physically reproduce a song — and that includes recording a cover the song and reproducing the song in audio-only format (such as to a streaming service, or as an mp3), you’ll need a mechanical license. A mechanical license means you will need permission from the author of the musical composition. Typically they will have an agreement with a third-party mechanical license society (like the Harry Fox Agency) through which you can request permission.

Alternatives

If you are not able to obtain the necessary rights to a song, or don’t have the time/budget for licensing, there are some alternatives. Songs that are in the public domain, and are no longer protected by copyright, are free game — but your choices are limited.

You may also look to songs within the Creative Commons system. The Creative Commons is a system that allows you to use content, with “some rights reserved”. That means you need to make sure that what you want to do with the music is OK under the terms of the particular Creative Commons license it’s under.

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