Curing the Headache of Music Licensing

September 7, 2012

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Alyce Currier


Copyright law is hard. Even our own video production guru has admitted that this is one of the murkiest issues for him — it’s a complication that often causes people to either err on the overly cautious side or throw caution to the wind and hope for the best. Well, we don’t like limitations, so we wanted to make a blog post explaining the basics of music licensing for business video in a way that everyone can understand. We’re not lawyers, but Shannon Jamieson and Dan Crocker, entertainment attorneys at New Leaf Legal (@NewLeafLegal), are, and they were kind enough to share the basic breakdown of how music licensing works with us.

According to Shannon and Dan, one of the biggest troubles that businesses encounter when trying to use music is that they didn’t realize they had to do anything. Unfortunately ignorance doesn’t hold up as an excuse in court, so get informed below!

Composition vs. Recording

Traditionally, you’re dealing with two licenses or copyrights: one for the composition, which is the actual underlying song, and the particular recording/master (every time there’s a new recording, there’s a new owner on that side, but not on the composition side).

With modern bands, you often see the composition owned by the band, and the sound recording owned by the record company, usually because they’re financing its creation.

License Types

When you go to do specifically audio-visual (a synchronization license), you have to license both the composition and the recording to put that recording to an image. When you hear a familiar song in a commercial covered by a different artist, it’s often because it was too expensive to license the original recording from the record company. The composition side is usually more reasonably priced.

There’s not really a difference on the books between licensing music for a video as an individual, a business, or another entity, but it might make a difference when you’re reaching out to artists personally. If you explain why you want to use a track, a lot of artists will be willing to work with you on a mutually agreeable arrangement.

Dealing with Up-and-Coming Artists

If you find an up-and-coming artist on a site like MySpace, PureVolume, or Soundcloud and you want to use their song, a lot of times, the artist just wants the approval that you’re using it and how you’re using it, with more reasonable rates or simply asking to be included in the credits.

The caveat here is that if they are on any sort of label, they either need to contact their label or you need to do so and make sure that you can use the recording. To research this information, you can use sites set up for publishing royalties like ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC, or in some cases, use sites like Amazon to see what label is putting the music out and find the rights and permission contact in that way.

There’s not much difference in licensing laws for different types of music — you just might have different pay expectations for a hit song versus an indie artist, etc.

Where to Get Started

The most important thing for getting started is to have reasonable expectations. Have an open mind and go more in a look-and-feel direction — for example, “I’d like a folky piece here.” Then you can go to Creative Commons, a non-profit that puts copyright licensing back into the copyright owner’s hands directly through an icon system. For example, Jack White (of White Stripes fame) has released a lot of his solo work under a Creative Commons license, where you can use his music for free as long as you’re doing, for example, a free project.

Explainer video by Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand

You don’t need to contact the artist directly — you just click a few buttons and can download the track to use according to the license that they’ve set out for you. There’s a huge database with Creative Commons and once you’ve learned the icon system, it’s really easy to know what you’re allowed to do with a piece of music.

What isn’t a sound approach is simply using a song and waiting for someone to contact you. As consumers, we have a duty to be respectful of artists, so if you want to use a piece of music, you should do whatever you can to reach out to the right people. If you’re not looking to make a lot of noise, picking one of the most popular songs possible and using it isn’t the way to do it — it’s basically drawing a huge target on your back and can get expensive quickly.

If you still don’t feel totally comfortable, you can also consider contacting a lawyer for a brief consulation on what you need to do to make sure you’re not stepping on any toes.

September 7, 2012

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Alyce Currier


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