Music Licensing 101: When is a license required?

music licensingRecently a friend asked me if she could use a commercial song in a video without obtaining a license. Since there are many common misunderstandings related to this question, I decided to turn my response to her into a blog post.

Can I use a commercial song in my video without a license?

According to copyright law, any synchronization of music to video requires a license, and only the copyright owner(s) or their legal designate has the right to grant such a license. That means that any time you add music to your video, you are legally required to obtain a synchronization license from the copyright owners.

There are two copyrights involved in any song: the composition and the recording. In the case of a commercial song, the composition is usually controlled by a publisher, and the recording is usually controlled by a record label. You are legally required to obtain a valid license from both the publisher and record label in order to synchronize music to video. In the case of a production music track, obtaining a license is generally much simpler since a music library can usually grant one license to cover both “sides” of the copyright.

While the risk of copyright infringement may be low if music is used in personal projects such as wedding videos and home movies, putting videos on the Internet with uncleared music is another matter entirely. All usages on the Internet are visible to the public, and you therefore run the risk of receiving a legal “cease and desist” notice and may be required to not only remove your video but also pay a hefty fine for copyright infringement. Why run the risk of legal headaches when simple and legal alternatives are available (such as production music libraries)?

What if I only put the video on YouTube?

YouTube is no exception. A valid synchronization is still required for all music usages. In fact, YouTube has developed an elaborate “Content ID” system that can automatically identify copyrighted content, such as music. If you use a commercial song in your video, it is very likely that you will receive a warning notice from YouTube telling you that you are using someone’s music without permission. Your video may be blocked or taken down, or you may find advertisements placed over your video (at the discretion of the content owners for monetization purposes), which you will not be able to remove.

What if I only use a few seconds of the song?

It is a common misconception to believe that it is OK to use “just a few seconds” of a piece of music without a license. The fact is, duration doesn’t matter. For example, there have been many lawsuits involving rap artists “sampling” a few seconds of an existing recording without a license. Whether you’re using one second or the entire song, a license is still required. The only possible exception to this rule is what is known as “Fair Use,” an obscure provision of copyright law that applies to the use of works for certain non-commercial, academic purposes- however this provision does not apply to the vast majority of videos on the Internet.

For a hilarious look at these and other popular misconceptions related to music licensing, check out this recent clip from the Letterman Show:


The bottom line is this: always be sure to obtain a license for any music used in a video to avoid the risk of potential legal hassles and penalties.


Ron Mendelsohn
November 26, 2014

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