Choosing music for your video can be a tough choice and what can make that choice even more challenging are the legal considerations that come along with it. Unfortunately, this can be a grey and muddy area in terms of understanding what is and isn’t legal and fair regarding the rights to your video’s soundtrack.

My goal is to help clarify and perhaps simplify an area of video production that is riddled with confusion and misinformation. Let’s begin by figuring out how we get a piece of music we like into our video without facing litigation!

How Can I Use An Artist’s Music In My Video? Permission vs. Public Domain

In most cases (except for public domain, but more on that later), when using a piece of music in your video you will need permission from the rights holders. Who are these rights holders? This is the artist, record label, and publisher that own the copyright to the intellectual property for the song you want.

Usually, the publishing company will administer the rights to gain access to the copyright of the composition/lyrics to a song and the record label will hold the rights to the master recording of that song. Sometimes the publisher and record label are the same entity and other times they’re separate companies.

It’s important to know that when licensing a song you need to make sure that your license covers both the composition/lyrics and the sound recording. These can be two separate licenses.

Permission comes in the form of a legal document called a synchronization or ‘sync’ license. The sync license is the ticket to using your desired track without legal ramifications.

Before contacting rights holders for permission you should be able to answer the following questions:

  • Term: How long the license is valid for?
  • License usage: This is gauged by how many employees are at your company
  • License type: Online promotional video, TV advertising commercial, etc.
  • Territory: Where will it be played?

The only time you won’t need a sync license is if the music you want to use is in the public domain (PD for short). “Any song or musical work published in 1922 or earlier is in the Public Domain in the USA,” according to PD Info. This covers the compositions and lyrics, however, sound recordings are not always PD in the United States unless their creators submitted them. In the case where a sound recording isn’t PD you would need permission from the rights holder of that sound recording (most likely the record label).  Here is a resource of music that is currently in the Public Domain.

How Do I Obtain Permission?

So, we know that we need permission to use someone’s music in our video. The challenge is finding out who the rights holders are and how to contact them.

Permission to use a sound recording:

To get permission for a sound recording you have to contact the record label that owns the master recording. A quick Google search will tell you this info or looking at the back of the album (old school!).

Contacting the label is as easy as visiting their website. Most labels make it clear in their ‘Contact Us’ section which e-mail address you should contact for licensing requests.

Permission to use composition & lyrics:

The rights holder of the composition and lyrics are not always the same as the record label and this information can be harder to find.

To track down which publishing company owns the rights to your requested song, you’ll have to visit the websites of the three major performing rights organizations. All publishers and songwriters will belong to one of these three performing rights organizations: ASCAP, BMI and SESAC.

What Are The Alternatives? Using Royalty-Free Music In Your Video

Due to shrinking production budgets, most companies don’t have the funds to license popular songs by well-known artists for every campaign they run. A much more economic solution is royalty-free music, also know as ‘stock music’. The term royalty-free means that you (the content creator) won’t have to pay out royalties every time the video plays on YouTube or even broadcast TV.

There are several stock music libraries out there with huge catalogues of music ready for licensing. No need to worry about getting permission, that’s been taken care of! The copyright and master recording have been pre-cleared by the rights holders.

The quality of music in stock libraries is high and getting higher everyday with today’s most relevant sounds. When you find your desired track on the stock music site of your choice, click “license now”. You’ll then have to choose the license that makes sense for you project and you’re on your way to having music in your video.

Here is a list of some of my favourite music libraries:

What About Fair Use? It Wouldn’t Be Fair to Leave it Out

Under some circumstances it’s possible to use an artist’s song in your video without permission from rights holders. This type of usage falls under the Fair Use provision of the Copyright Law.  This area can get really grey, so be careful and realistic as to how you’re using the music. Ways that music can be used under fair use:

  1. News Reporting
  2. Criticism
  3. Comment
  4. Scientific research
  5. Teaching
  6. Parody

It’s important to note that if the rights holders (the artist, publishing company, record label, etc.) disagree with your use than you may be facing lawsuit and damages. Yikes!

What Will Happen If I Use Copyrighted Music Without Permission?

I do not at all recommend using copyrighted music in your video without the proper permission, but should it happen it’s important to know what you could be facing.

If you’re lucky, nothing will happen. The severity of punishment depends on if you’re making money from the video. The more money being earned the higher the risk. Here are some things that could happen:

  • The audio in your video is muted.
  • YouTube account receives a strike. (3 and you’re out.)
  • Ads are placed on your video with revenue going to the artist/publisher.
  • The right’s holder(s) of the work will file legal action against you.

Thanks for reading. If you’re ever unsure about having the proper permissions just remember: when in doubt, leave it out!

Jason Cliffen