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Music Copyright Guide

by Casey Burgess

What License Do I Need?

If you are going to use music that is copyrighted and it is not a fair use, you need to get a license. The first thing you need to decide is what kind of license you need. There are three main types of licenses you need to know about and may need to acquire depending on how you're going to use the copyrighted material:

  • Synchronization Licenses
    • This is mainly for Audiovisual works like film and television, which synchronize music to images. This is a license for both the sound recording of a piece and the composition of a piece.
    • These are usually negotiated directly with the owner of the copyright or through their music publisher
  • Mechanical Licenses
    • This is the license necessary to record a composition. This does not license a particular recording of a piece, but rather the composition itself, so that you may record it. For each copy of the recording, a separate fee needs to be made, so you can’t sell the recordings you make unless you pay for each one you make!
    • Most mechanical licenses can be done online through the Harry Fox Agency.
  • Public Performance License
    • This is likely the one you will need to get for recitals and performances that are not covered under fair use. In order to perform in a public venue, such as a restaurant, or at a mall, or in a music hall, you have to get a license from the owner of the copyright owner to perform the piece publicly, since they control when and where their piece can be performed live. Most composers and publishers use Performance Rights Organizations (or PROs) to negotiate prices for these pieces. The most common agencies include ASCAP, BMI, and       SESAC.
    • A subsection of the Public Performance License is the Grand rights license, which is for dramatic works with music like ballets, musicals, or operas. These are usually negotiated with the copyright owner directly rather than with a PRO.
    • There is also a performance right organization specifically for sound recordings called Sound Exchange, which collects royalties for the digital broadcast of sound recordings and distributes them to the proper owners. For more information about sound recordings, see the "Sound Recordings" tab on the left.

Getting A License

  1. Determine if it is still in Copyright. See the Duration of Copyright for help with this! If it’s Public Domain, you can use it! IMSLP can help with determining if a piece is in the public domain, but it always helps to get further confirmation.
  2. Finding Owners. Copyright Office Catalogs and Database are good resources for this. Often, doing a basic search on Google will be able to get you some information. The information for this is also usually included in the published sheet music. If you cannot find the author, it is an orphaned work, which is very complicated, so see the Copyright Office’s Website for information about this.
  3. Find the Performing Rights Organization (PRO). Search the databases for ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. Fun Fact: The PROs often have the information for the music publishers, which you would contact to get a synchronization or mechanical license!
  4. Buy the License. Often you can buy a license online! Cost obviously plays a role. Unfortunately, there is no set rule for how much a license will cost. It depends on the piece and your performance, but likely it won’t be too expensive, so don’t be daunted by this process!