The perfect addition to any project is music. Whether you are making a video advertisement for your product; including music in your posts on your company website, TikTok, or YouTube; posting an at-home workout video for your clients; using music at corporate events; or playing music at your bar or restaurant – music is a vital part of society. Music is also the most common reason your content may be muted or taken down from social media, in addition to being exposed to potential liability for copyright infringement and related monetary damages. When you use someone’s music without their permission, absent a few extremely limited exceptions, you are infringing on their copyright.1
For the vast majority of music uses, you will first need to obtain permission. In this article, we lay out some fundamentals to assist in determining the type of license an average company would need and some potential alternatives. Bottom line: when you are planning and budgeting for music in a project, make sure you get the proper rights and permissions in place before pressing “Play.”
There are two primary copyrighted works for every song: the musical composition and the sound recording. The musical composition consists of the music and any accompanying lyrics. The publishing companies commonly own the rights to the musical composition, but composers and songwriters can also hold rights. The sound recording is the specific fixed, recorded version of the musical composition and is most often owned by the record labels. Someone who writes, records, and performs their own song can own both copyrights in the song. However, there are usually many more people involved in the making of one song. Therefore, requesting permission to use a song typically requires obtaining licenses from various parties.
The most common licenses needed to use songs for various projects common to companies are master use licenses, synchronization (sync) licenses, public performance licenses, and mechanical licenses, although this is by no means an exhaustive discussion of every type of license within the music industry. You may need one, two, or a combination of them, depending on the nature of your project.
Types of Licenses
A master use license is needed for use of a specific pre-recorded version of a song, or the sound recording, in either an audio or visual format. For example, to use the original recording from the artist’s album, you would need to request a license from the record label for the use of the sound recording.
Master use licenses are usually needed in conjunction with sync licenses. A sync license is needed for use of the musical composition in an audiovisual format. That is, when you “synch” audio with video, such as in an advertising video, you need permission from the author of the musical composition (whether a cover or a recording of the song), which is usually the music publisher, in addition to the master use license.
A public performance license is needed if you plan to play the song to an audience outside of small private group of friends or family. A few common examples include playing music at a conference or a bar or restaurant or uploading a song to your website, in addition to other uses, including broadcasting. These constitute public performances. These licenses are generally obtained through performing rights societies (PROs), which license “the public performance of nondramatic works on behalf of copyright owners of such works.” 17 U.S.C. 101.
A mechanical license is needed to physically reproduce a musical composition. For instance, to record a cover of a song and reproduce the song in audio-only format (i.e., to a streaming service, a CD, MP3, etc.), you would need permission from the author of the musical composition. Usually, the author will have an agreement with a third-party mechanical license society, such as the Harry Fox Agency, through which you can request permission.
Keep in mind that obtaining the necessary rights for a particular project can take time and money. If you are seeking rights from the major music industry players, you should give them the necessary lead time and budget accordingly.
If you are not able to obtain the necessary rights to your first-choice song, there are a variety of options for incorporating music into your content without infringing on copyrights. For example, you do not need permission to use songs that are in the public domain, because they are no longer protected by copyright. However, the public domain is not nearly as expansive as many believe. Some musicians also license their songs through Creative Commons with certain restrictions or credit requirements. Be sure to abide by the license requirements. There are also various companies that license a collection of music that has been pre-cleared for common media uses. These companies are a one-stop shop and have the authority to license every aspect of the copyrighted work. You could also consider commissioning originally written music with some advance planning.
If you need assistance, please contact the authors, who can guide you through the process.
 As of this writing, some deals have been reached, or are in the works, between certain platforms and certain music companies (but by no means all). This is an area to watch as it develops. Be sure to review the copyright terms and policies of such platforms before posting, or consult with a copyright attorney if you are unsure.