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Music Copyright and Licensing

This is a guide to basic copyright and licensing for musicians written by Casey Burgess. NOTE: THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE. FOR SPECIFIC INFORMATION ABOUT COPYRIGHT OR LICENSING PLEASE SEEK LEGAL COUNSEL.

Licensing in a Nutshell

Why do I need to license anything?

  • Copyright owners have control over their works. Licensing is a written agreement that gives permission to someone to use their work for specific purposes. It sounds complicated and difficult, but it's necessary to maintain the integrity of artistry.

What can be licensed?

  • Anything that falls under copyright protections can be licensed. This includes musical compositions, sound recordings, and lyrics.

In order to understand how music licensing works, you have to know the process. In order for music to be licensed, there need to be some requirements.

  • Minimally, there needs to be some connection to the artist. This can be a lawyer who runs the estate of an artist, the descendants, family, or beneficiary of an artist, an artist's publisher, or the artist themselves. Many artists also use The Harry Fox Agency to license their music.
  • The person wishing to license will state who they are and/or who they work for and what they are planning on using the music for. The person will then determine if they wish to allow the licensor to license the music.
  • If the licensee agrees, negotiations will begin to determine how much money should be exchanged. Some places like the Harry Fox Agency will have a fixed fee for certain licenses of certain works. 
  • Once agreed upon, a license will be drafted and must be executed, or signed, by both parties.

There are several types of licenses depending on how the music will be used:

  • Synchronization License
  • Master License
  • Mechanical License
  • Public Performance License

There are some artists who public their works to be used freely, such as on the Free Music Archive, Tribe of Noise, Soundcloud, and several others. You can find a more complete list here. Note that many of these websites acutally use a system called the Creative Commons license. Some artists still require that you let them know when you wish to use their work. See the Creative Commons website for more details.


Royalties are payments made to the copyright owner of a work. It is an acknowledgement that you have made money off of someone else work and are paying them for that. It is usually some percentage of the money that you bring in, so the amount will vary. These are sent to PROs or music publishers, who then distribute these to their clients. 

Synchronization Licenses

These are licenses used for cases where a person wishes to synchronize music to some sort of visual material, often television or film. These can usually be negotiated directly with the copyright owner or with their publisher. This licenses the composition itself, not a recording (see below for Master License agreements). The language in a synchronization license is usually boiler plate, with changes made for the names of the parties involved and the amount of money agreed upon.

Master Licenses

A master license is created for people who wish to use a sound recording to create a new piece. Often this is referred to as sampling. However, master licenses are very broad and also apply to using sound recordings in film, television, commercials, and more. So when you get a synchronization license, it is most often paired with a master license.

This distinction between a Synchronization and a Master license:

  • Synchronization licenses pay the composer for the right to sync their composition (music and lyrics) to a video
  • Master licenses pay the owner of the specific recording you are using for your use of their recording

Here's an example:

  • Bob Dylan has recorded a version of "Yesterday" by the Beatles. If you want to use that in a video, you would pay Paul McCartney and any other copyright owners of the composition a fee and execute a synchronization license. You would then make a master license agreement with Bob Dylan and any other performers or owners of the copyright of that recording and pay a fee to them.

Mechanical License

Mechanical licenses are used for cases where a person wishes to record their version of a song. This does not give the rights to a sound recording, only the right to record the song. An example of a case where a mechanical license was used is the show Glee. They recorded original versions of songs for the show and not recordings of others singing it. Therefore, they needed mechanical licenses to legally do this. The Harry Fox Agency is the most common place where a mechanical license can be obtained, though some music publishers handle this process as well. Due to the Music Modernization Act of 2018, the U.S. Copyright Office established the Mechanical Licensing Collective, which handles blanket mechanical licenses for online streaming and download services as well.

Public Performance License

In order to perform in a public venue, you have to get a license from the copyright owner to do so. This includes any public performance, whether it's at a mall or restaurant or on stage. You can often get public performance licenses from different Performance Rights Organizations, also known as PROs. The most common of these are ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. They are also the ones who handle the collection and distribution of royalties (see above).

It's also important to note that you also have to get a public performance license to play sound recordings in a public space, which includes streaming (except for radio and television transmission, which fall under special circumstances). So if you are going to DJ, it's important that you know how to get a public performance license. Most of these are handled through Sound Exchange.

Please note that this guide is merely to educate people on the law and does not contain any legal advice. If you have a legitimate question about copyright, please consult with a lawyer.