Legally-licensed music, or, "Yes! You CAN license music for your video!"

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Alex H.

Staff member
When it comes to content creation, music and copyrights raise some challenges. On one hand, film makers and video producers need music to enhance their content. On the other hand, the music most folks like (mainstream, popular music) can be difficult or expensive to license... but perhaps it's not as difficult to get great music as one would think.

For a long time folks have practiced a theoretical "ask forgiveness rather than permission" method, hoping that the record companies wouldn't notice - or care - that some one has used their music under a video without permission or licensing. And for a long time, many people have been able to stay under the radar. That's starting to change, however, as the record companies are cracking down even more diligently through hosting sites such as YouTube and Vimeo. There have also been stories in the headlines lately about wedding videographers - long some of the most prolific practitioners of "I hope no one notices" - facing 6-figure lawsuits for using popular music with no licensing. (One such story HERE.)

Let's be clear about copyright infringement: if it's not your original material, and you don't have permission to use it, it is illegal to use it. There is no weight behind the argument that "I'm not making any money off this." Purchasing a CD, or purchasing a track or album on iTunes, does not give you the right to use the music within a video (for profit or not); the "personal use" guaranteed with that purchase covers nothing more than listening to the music at home, in your car, or on your iPod. When you add a music track to your video and then play that video in a public venue, whether or not for profit, you are violating the copyright of the original artist. Further, posting a song to YouTube or Vimeo as part of your video is effectively distributing a copy of that song every time some one watches it, and that's no different from making copies of the CD and handing them out to everyone you know.

I've seen several videos lately on Vimeo that have something in the description that goes like this:

"Music: I Love My Puppy by John Smith.
I do not own the rights to the music. All credit for the music goes to John Smith."

This does not make it okay. So, great, John Smith got credited. But where are his royalties? Or, at least, why was he not given the option to permit use of his song at no cost? Simply claiming that you don't have the rights only means that you're openly admitting to copyright infringement. There is absolutely no excuse for appropriating some one else's original, creative work and representing it as, or as part of, your own content.

So what's the answer? Well, in short, you must get a synchronization license, aka "synch" license. The good news is that this is not as hard as it sounds, and it's getting easier every day!

For mainstream music from the major labels, there are a couple of ways to go. One is to license through BMI, ASCAP, or whichever clearing house handles that recording. The other option is to appeal directly to the artist, or the artist's label. If you think this is out of reach, remember that it never hurts to ask directly, and the worst they can say is no. Hey... they'll be thankful you actually took the time to ask, at the very least. And it isn't unheard of for a well-known artist to grant usage of his/her well-known material to one of the little fish in the pond. (Shining example HERE.) By all means, start there if you're really set on using mainstream tracks.

There are some production libraries that have been around for a while (DeWolfe, Killer Tracks) and are the ones that you'll find in many (most) major production facilities. They have vast selections of all genres, even some you probably never thought of. There are also more and more fantastic resources out there for music that can be licensed for any budget, and often for free. Further, the overall depth and quality of available and affordable production music is much higher today than 10 years ago. Inexpensive/free production tracks aren't just crappy synth anymore... much of it is well-recorded with real people playing real instruments, and there's even a wealth of lyrical music available nowadays. One of the newest trends is software that will customize the track to your exact needed length, or that will allow you to alter the instrumentation in varying degrees between full score and underscore.

As a film maker's community, DVXUser encourages us all to create content openly and often, and it is important that all elements of that content are obtained the right way. So here's a list of resources for finding some great production music. Some are cheap, some are free. Some require signing an agreement, and many require giving credit to the authors. Some have different levels of licensing based on intended use, so please read each one carefully. Many of them, however, are free for use in whatever project you have (this is called perpetual license, or no-needle-drop, or buyout).

Libraries with needle-drop fees:

Killer Tracks

Buyout Libraries (no needle-drop fees):

Sound Ideas
Digital Juice (also keep an eye out for the occasional re-release of their discontinued BackTraxx libraries)

Piecemeal (purchased per track) music licensing, though some also offer full album/library purchasing:

Fresh Music Library
NEO Sounds
Royalty Free Music
Mojo Royalty Free Music Library

Geared to Wedding Videographers (please read licensing and FAQ very, very carefully):

Zoom Music Licensing
Song Freedom
The Music Bed

Free, many of which require credit given for use (DVXUser claims no responsibility for the accuracy of these websites' content, so do your research and READ THE LICENSING TERMS for each site):

Artist Server
Public Domain Music
Public Domain 4U
Piano Society
Moby Gratis
Justin Ewart
Download Free Sound
Sound Image

There's also a wealth of resources at Creative Commons, which is a new way of licensing (for free!) content from other creators:

Creative Commons Music Communities

One often-overlooked resource: local indie bands. You might have some bands in your town who would love to have their music promoted, and it never hurts to ask. Just like the major artists, the worst they can say is no, right?

Another viable option is to re-record a well-known tune. A mechanical license (that is, a license to make an original recording of a copyrighted work) is often much less expensive than a synch license, and for that small fee you can get a band that you know to record the piece and make it truly unique for your work. The best, first place to go for mechanical licensing is the Harry Fox Agency. It's what they do.

There's also a magic number: 1922. Any music or lyrics published before 1922 are in the public domain, so you will not need a mechanical license to make a recording of that music. Please note that this pertains only to printed music, as recorded music still falls under a different copyright structure. You may have a recording of the London Symphony Orchestra performing a piece by Beethoven, and Beethoven's score is in the public domain, but that recording is copyrighted by the LSO and you'd still have to get a synch license to use it. If you have your own orchestra and a copy of Beethoven's score... record away!

Thanks to Scott (Noiz2) for several of the free/royalty-free links posted above.

NOTE: DVXUser does not allow any encouragement, promotion, or discussion in favor of music piracy or copyright infringement. If you don't know, please ask and the community will be glad to help. Any posts that tout or encourage unauthorised use of copyrighted material will be deleted.

This thread is not intended as a discussion of copyright law. The purpose of this thread is to provide helpful information and links to useful resources, to encourage content creators to use properly-licensed material in all projects. If you have links or information that you'd like to see included, please PM Alex H. or Jason Ramsey.
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It seems to vary widely from one country to another.

Here in the US, we have compulsory provision for Mechanical Licenses at Statutory Rates. But that only covers audio recordings of most music after first release. The Harry Fox Agency is the primary source for Compulsory Mechanical Licenses. They tried to get into the Sync Licensing business a few years ago, but abandoned the attempt after less than a year. Apparently because it was too difficult to negotiate individual cases and/or prices were too high to be attractive to producers.

Alas, there is no equivalent for Sync License which is required for film/video. Sync License is individually negotiated with the rights owner and is based on a great many factors. There are music clearance services who specialize in this kind of legal wrangling. It probably isn't simple enough for a boilerplate document.

But it appears that other countries have something closer the automatic US mechanical licensing for film/video music use. I have seen an online request for the Canadian equivalent of Sync License.

CD Baby (the 2nd largest seller of CDs and downloads after Amazon) is promoting their artists to sell Sync Licenses for their original music.
I've licensed material through and for my needs the licensing was cheap enough, and covered enough of what I needed.

While there may be some reason to license a 'known' artist or piece of modern music... I think for many applications finding lesser known artists with material that works, definitely is cheaper, and easier.
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Firstly, a quick disclaimer:

I am not a copyright lawyer and as such this is intended as a general guide

only, it is a brief overview of copyright legislation which is an enormously complex field with many exceptions and details which are impossible to cover here.

This article is not intended to constitute legal advice and should not be relied on as such.

Now that that is out of the way,

Do I need a license to use this music?

The answer is almost cerrtainly yes, all music is covered by copyright automatically as soon as it is written down/recorded and these rights belong to the composer (jointly if there is more than one or composer and lyricist etc.)

Anything that you produce for public viewing, regardless of whether it is for profit or not and regardless of whether you are a student (with a few small and very limited exceptions) that includes the music of someone else needs there permission in the form of a synchronisation license.

When you are using music there are actually two aspects to consider

How long does Copyright last?

  1. The copyright in the musical work itself.
  2. The copyright in the recording.
These are two seperate things and you need to ensure that you are covered on both counts, for example Beethoven is out of copyright however you cannot simply grab a CD from the shelf and use the music because there is still a copyright interest in the recording.

When will
The Work (not the recording) be out of copyright (public domain)

In 1986 The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic works established a degree of uniformity around copyright
law as almost every country has signed up to it.

The duration of copyright is based on a period of time after the creator (whether they be author, composer, photographer etc.) died plus a set period of time (life +__)

The Berne Convention sets a minimum term of copyright of at least life+ 50 years (except for photographic work which is life+25 years), however many countries have gone for a longer term including all members of the European Union and the US who have a copyright term of life+70 years, with a few exceptions which I have mentioned below

If you wish to be able to show your product around the world then this is the best figure to work from however, if you are creating something for a specific location you can check the length of copyright in various countries here.

Isn’t 1922 the cut off date?

Many people will tell you that 1922 is the magic date
before which everything is out of copyright it is important to note that this is only the case in the United States.

The US had complex copyright laws before signing the Berne convention but between 1923 – 1978 copyright lasted for 95 years from publication and from 1978 it is life+70 years.

For countries other than the US use Life+70years.

There are a lot of small exceptions and oddities surrounding copyright law so if the work you wish to use is from around these dates I would strongly suggest you seek legal advice but they are a very good ballpark.

When will
The Recording be out of copyright?

The length of the copyright in the recording is different from that in the work.

The European Union has only recently (last year) decided to extend the duration of copyright in recordings however this has yet to be introduced to law so currently protection is for 50 years from the date the recording was made however in the United States I’m afraid things are a little more complex.

The United States introduced The Copyright Act of 1976 which ensured that all recordings made on or after the 15[SUP]th[/SUP] February 1972 were covered by the standard copyright term I mentioned above, unfortunately recordings made before that date are still (and will be up until 2047) covered by state law which can be different from state to state.


Complex as all this your safest bet is to go for the life+70years calculation which means that almost any usable recording will still be in copyright in the US but if you are working in Europe you can use recordings from before 1961, but only if the author/composer died more than 70 years ago so that there is no longer any copyright in the work.
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