Keeping It Legal

Best Practice Series

Understanding copyright and licensing music. 

There’s never been a better time to listen to music online. High-speed Internet and wireless access puts the entire planet’s song library within a couple of taps or clicks. If you’re looking for a song for a project, all you need to do is imagine the tune and within seconds, you could be listening to - or downloading or streaming - it.

But just because you can grab a snippet of music for your project doesn’t mean you should. Not everything you hear online is ripe for the taking. Someone, somewhere, created that content and may very well still own it. Copyright and other legal considerations compel marketers and businesses to ensure they have appropriate rights to use all content - including music. Doing things the legal way allows artists and content owners to be fairly rewarded for their work, and helps create legitimate markets for the artistic community. Ignoring the realities of copyright, on the other hand, can put you on the wrong end of possible legal action that can not only ding the bottom line, but can also compromise your brand integrity.

Balancing your need to easily and quickly find and integrate the right music for any project with the rights of those who created or otherwise own that music is rapidly becoming a key requirement of the digital age. On the one hand, you don’t want to find yourself on the wrong side of a takedown request. On the other hand, you don’t want to spend so much time navigating the legal minefield of music copyright that your projects are delayed.

When you’re looking for music online for your next project, here are the key - and legal - options available to you:

Find it in the public domain

Any public domain-based content is free to be used for personal and commercial purposes. An example of a composition that is in the public domain is Ode to Joy by Beethoven. However, if an orchestra records Ode to Joy, they own the copyright for that musical performance. You can use Beethoven's original score because it is in the public domain, but in the case of the orchestra mentioned earlier, their performance is protected by copyright would need to be licensed. That said, finding performances already in the public domain can be a challenge, as public domain music is often shared on obscure websites and services by independent musicians looking to grow awareness.

Sharpen your search skills and make sure you aren’t clicking on rogue links that take you to malware-infested sites. Also make sure the content doesn’t have embedded samples and other elements that are subject to additional copyright. Just because it says “public domain” doesn’t mean whoever posted it online had the right to do so. Proceed with care.

License it

If you’ve identified a piece of music you’d like to use for your project, you can always contact the artist directly, or his/her/their studio or publisher. Terms for granting licensed use are negotiated on a case-by-case basis, and any resulting licensing agreements apply to the particular project in question.

Blanket licenses, which unsurprisingly cost more than single-song licenses, can apply to an artist’s entire catalog, or to a complete sound library. In all cases, the customer must first pay for the rights to sync the music to a video clip. The final broadcaster of the resulting clip will also need to pay public performance fees and connect with their local collecting societies to report which tracks they've used. This is a universal requirement regardless of where you happen to be.

If your project doesn’t have sufficient budget to pay for licensing fees, consider what other value-adds you may be able to offer in exchange for usage rights. The deal doesn’t always have to be monetary.

Buy royalty-free music

Sometimes known as rights-free music, royalty-free content is secured in a manner similar to licensed music: Contact the artist or publisher, then negotiate a workable arrangement.

Remember, royalty-free doesn't mean cost-free. You always have to secure a license up-front to acquire the right to use the music in your production. In general, it's easier to secure clearance for multiple platforms when using music labelled as royalty-free, but the main benefit is that your costs for broadcasting the content are not based on the number of views, as you do not have to pay for public performance.

Commission it

If there isn’t anything out there that you feel matches your brand’s audio signature requirements, or the needs of your specific project, consider engaging a musician or related organization to custom-build a tune just for you. This is typically the most expensive and time-consuming route to take, but it offers the advantage of uniqueness: You’ll own full rights to the song, to use whenever and however you wish.

The iconic McDonald’s “Ba Da Bab Ba Ba” jingle was commissioned, and its value to the brand since it first aired is easily orders of magnitude beyond what it cost to make.

Keeping yourself on the right side of the legal equation isn’t rocket science. With a little up-front investment to research the options, you can easily have your musical cake and eat it, too.


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