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Music Licenses & Copyrights

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The focus of this article is primarily on the use of prerecorded music used in productions as it pertains to music licensed from a production music library, royalty free music or otherwise. Although the production music library is the main focus, these rights/licenses are needed whether the music is obtained from a library or any other source.

Production music libraries, like Iamusic.com, typically include all the music licenses mentioned below as they are the copyright holders of each element. A one-stop-shop for music licensing.

Rights / Licenses needed to use prerecorded music in an Audio/Visual Work:

Rights / Licenses needed to use prerecorded music in an audio ONLY Work:

There are several separate licenses involved with music because different parties can own different parts of copyrighted material. There is the composer who owns the copyright of the composition. There is the publisher who can grant usage rights of the composition. The Performing Rights Organizations (PRO) usually collect performance royalties on behalf of the composer and publisher (unless a Direct License has been issued to the Licensee) when applicable. The sound recording is also copyrighted, which can be owned by a recording company.

Since a music library typically owns the copyright on the sound recording and the publishing rights, all these licenses are easy to obtain from one source in one transaction. Performing rights for a production music library can either be handled by the PROs, or obtained directly from the music library in what is known as a Direct License. Many small royalty free music libraries offer the direct license as a standard part of their music license. Other music libraries may grant a direct license for certain uses while requiring the PROs to handle others. Some music libraries do not grant direct licenses under any circumstance. This will vary between libraries.

When licensing so called "popular music", the costs are far greater and the various licenses have to be obtained from different sources. You need to contact the music publisher (or composer if no publisher) to obtain mechanical rights, synchronization rights and inquire about performing rights. Then, you need to contact the record label to obtain the master use rights as they own the copyright on the sound recording. Contracts for each right will need to be filled out with each party involved.

Another type of license worth mentioning here, which has nothing to do with an Audio/Visual Work or Audio Only production, is Grand Rights. These are the rights needed to use music in a broadway style performance, and are granted by, and paid directly to, the music publisher.


Audio/Visual Work: An industry term for film, television or any other audio/visual production such as presentations, Flash, Quicktime & other internet visual formats, videos, CDs, DVDs, etc.

Synchronization Rights: The right to use the music in timed relations with other visual elements in a film, video, television show/commercial, or other audio/visual production. In other words, the right to use the music as a soundtrack with visual images. Synchronization licenses are obtained from the publisher (or composer if no publisher) or the music library.

Master Use Rights: When you hear music on the radio or TV, this recording is known in the music industry as the "master recording". This is what is produced after all the musicians have played their parts and these parts have been "mixed" together for release. The recording of the master is also protected by copyright. A record label or music library owns this copyright, and can grant the right to use the recording in a compilation album, film soundtrack or other Audio/Visual medium. It grants the right to use the sound recording.

Performing Rights: Public Performance Right is the exclusive right the U.S. Copyright Law gives to the creator of a musical work or other copyrighted material authorizing the use in public. Every time a song is performed on a broadcast, there is a public performance. This public performance is licensed by performing rights organizations (BMI/ASCAP/etc.) or directly from the copyright holder as a direct license.

Mechanical Rights: License granting the right to record and release a specific composition at an agreed-upon fee per unit manufactured and sold. Right to use a song owned by someone else on a recording.

Grand Rights: Term used to describe "dramatic" performing rights. This would include musical comedies (Broadway and off-Broadway), operas, operettas, ballets, as well as renditions of musical compositions in a dramatic setting where there is narration, a plot and/or costumes and scenery. The copyright owner has the exclusive right to issue licenses and collect fees for grand rights. Performance Rights Organizations do not collect performing rights royalties for this use, and are licensed directly from either the composer or publisher.

Direct License: A license obtained directly from the copyright owner or publisher where the Performing Rights are paid directly to the copyright owner by the Licensee. With a Direct License, no royalties are collected by, or paid to, the Performing Rights Organizations (BMI/ASCAP/etc.).

Copyright: The exclusive right, granted by law for a stated period, usually until 70 years after the death of the surviving author of the work, to make, dispose of, and otherwise control copies of literary, musical, dramatic, pictorial and other copyrightable works.