Music instantly sets the mood and tone for your videos and helps form a connection with your audience. You will want to use music whenever you make a video. Choosing the right background music for your video is really important, but it isn’t as easy as finding the song you like and cutting it into your work. Music is governed by copyright laws, which means you will need to do your homework to avoid legal trouble, like getting a copyright strike or a Takedown Notice.
We have put together this guide to help you work out music copyright rules so that you can work worry-free finding the perfect copyright-free songs that will elevate your videos.
What is Copyright?
Let’s start with the basics: what is copyright? Whenever you create something, from music to photos to poetry, you own it. You get to decide who can and cannot use it, where and how it can be used, and how much people will need to pay you if they want to use it. For example, if you shot some amazing footage of an osprey swooping over a Scottish loch, VisitScotland, the Scottish tourist board, couldn’t just use it on its website. You would have to give VisitScotland permission, and it would have to pay you a fee. This is known as a license.
If you want, you can think of copyright as when you have the right to decide who gets to make copies of, or make use of, your creations. Copyright lasts from the moment you create something until 70 years after your death. Yes, your kids or maybe nieces or nephews could make money from something you created before they were born. When those 70 years have passed, a work becomes out-of-copyright or public domain, and anyone can make use of it without having to purchase a license.
The same applies to music. If you want to include music in your video, you will need to purchase a license. However, if you want to license music for your videos, there are some things you need to know.
What are the music copyright rules?
We know that music can be in- or out-of-copyright, but it doesn’t stop there. When music is copyrighted, there are generally two parts to its copyright. The first part is the composition itself, usually owned by the composer or author. The second part is the performance or recording copyright, usually owned by the publisher or recording company. This means that you are free to record Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor yourself without having to pay any royalties to Bach, but you can’t use Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of it without purchasing a license.
Next, you will find that copyright music comes with different types of licenses that determine how it can be used. The terminology around these licenses can, initially, be confusing.
If the music that you want to use is rights-managed, it will fall into two categories: needle-drop or synchronization licensed. Needle-drop refers to radio play, while synchronization is for music in movies, TV programs, commercials, or Internet play. Wherever rights-managed music appears, it has to be paid for the same way: a fee for every time it’s played. It doesn’t matter if it’s the title theme for a TV series or background music for a vlog; you will have to pay for every play.
Royalty-Free or Copyright-Free Music
Royalty-free music is different. Here you pay a one-time license fee, and you're allowed to use it however many times you wish according to the terms of the license. (Some licenses will have caveats or tiers. We’ll look at that in a bit more detail soon.) You will very often hear royalty-free music referred to as copyright-free music or copyright-free songs. It doesn’t mean that they are free-to-use, but you don’t have to pay for them over and over again.
Free Non-Copyrighted Music
Do make sure that you are clear on the differences between copyright-free music and free non-copyrighted music because you could find yourself having to pay out for a copyright infringement if you’re not.
Free non-copyrighted music falls into two categories. It can be music in the public domain because the creator died over 70 years ago. Or it can be music where the creator has made it free-to-use. This is very unusual, so if you think a piece of music is free to use, check and check again. The rules around folk and traditional music are quite murky, so you need to be extra careful here.
Want to know how to tell if a song is copyrighted? You assume it is. Unless you've made a movie that only you are going to watch in the privacy of your own home, you are going to need to purchase a license for any music that you put to it. This applies to educational videos as well as commercials. It also applies to most platforms, like Twitch, where streamers were presented with a slew of takedown requests a few months ago after using unlicensed copyrighted music for their streams.
The penalties for using copyrighted music without a license can be quite severe and you don’t want to find yourself with a hefty fine.
If you share a video in public where you have used an unlicensed piece of copyrighted music, the copyright owner can present whoever is hosting your video, whether you're using YouTube or Vimeo, Facebook or Twitch, with a takedown notice. In turn, the host will ask you to take down the offending content. This is known as a copyright strike. If you believe that you have licensed the music properly, you can contest the takedown notice. But you can be fined if the music isn’t licensed.
After three copyright strikes on YouTube, all of your content will be deleted, your account will be terminated, and you will not be able to create new ones. The rules around copyright infringement are quite involved, so ensuring you always use properly licensed music, for example, anything purchased from Artlist, do read this great article on copyright infringement.
How to use copyrighted music
Whether you're looking for a track that will form the signature for your brand, background music for an educational video, or if you need music for your Twitch stream, there are plenty of places that offer royalty-free or copyright-free music.
Obviously, we think that Artlist is the best place to purchase your copyright-free music licenses. That isn’t just because we have a library of 1,000s of songs that are easy to search, but it’s also because our license is very simple. When you subscribe to Artlist, you get unlimited downloads with lifetime use across unlimited projects. Some platforms will have restrictions on their copyright-free music licenses. For example, other platforms might require you to get separate licenses for the same music piece if you want to use it. Or the license might be time-limited. Who wants to have to remember to renew a license in five years?