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Special Considerations - Music

Of all the forms of copyright protected works, music is perhaps the most restricted and licensed. Since music was first broadcast on radio, a vast mechanism for licensing music has emerged from the opposing forces of the recording industry and the radio and TV broadcasting industries.  This adds to the risk assessment factor and complicates evaluations of fair use as well, since "harm to the market" for the work is a much broader question.

When thinking of using or performing a musical work, consider:

  • There are likely multiple copyright owners in any musical recording.
    • When you hear a song on the radio you are hearing two separate copyrights: one for the underlying musical composition (or even one for the lyrics and another for the music) and one for the sound recording. The distinction between these two is important, because even though they are both attached to one song, they are two separate works for copyright purposes and may be independently licensed or enforced.
  • In addition to the restriction on copying or distributing the music (such as creating CDs), playing or performing it in public is also violation of copyright.  You are likely to need to license public performance rights for anything outside a private space or as part of a face-to-face class.  See Public Performance Rights for more information.
    • To be clear, "performing" includes broadcasting the song publicly, such as playing it for a public event.
  • Because the music industry is so well-established, there is a special market for licensing songs to use in videos.  ‚ÄčIf you are distributing (including by posting on the web) a video that includes music you don’t own or control, you may need a synchronization license. You will need to contact the publisher(s) directly to obtain these rights. 
    • Special note: some music publishers have pre-existing agreements with YouTube for synchronization rights. For more info, see Harry Fox Agency's "Do I need a license..." page.

For more information on understand the complexity of music, see Washington State University's Music & Copyright or the four-part series on issues in music copyright from Ohio State University.

For information on finding music you can safely reuse, see our Legal Sources for Multimedia Projects: Audio guide.

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