Using copyright in music

Music is created every day in all forms, whether it’s a radio jingle, a new number-one hit or a film soundtrack. Creators of any form of music are legally protected by music copyright. This protection ensures composers, recording artists, producers and other creatives are sufficiently recognised and recompensed for their work.

All music played in public requires permission of the music’s copyright holders before it can be featured. This permission is known as ‘licensing’ or ‘clearing’ a particular piece of music.

If you are thinking of utilising a piece of music in any type of production, you’ll need to have a clear understanding of what you’re planning to do with it in order to obtain the necessary licensing and avoid potentially costly copyright infringement.

What do you need to understand

  • What type of music do you require?
  • In what context will the music be used?
  • For what type of project is the music needed? I.e. TV production, digital video, TV commercial, feature film.
  • Will it be displayed publicly and how often?
  • How much music do you need?

All of the above factors will influence how much the total cost of licensing your chosen music. Once you have definitive answers to the above it is then possible to find the right piece of music for your particular project.

What types of music can be licensed?

Specially composed music
Arguably the most cost-effective method is composing and recording a song for yourself, saving considerable time, money and red tape. For those working within the confines of a restricted budget, it’s possible to commission a piece of music from an unsigned artist or brand who will appreciate the exposure and may even hand you the license to the music for free. Nevertheless, a contract will still need to be written, informing the artist of how many times the track will be used and in what context.

Commercial music
For those wishing to feature commercial music in their production the licensing process is somewhat more expensive and complex than utilising library music – which we will discuss shortly. Commercial music is anything that’s aimed at the general public e.g. songs you hear on the radio and albums available to download via iTunes. In order to use commercial music, you will require permission from the writer of the song, known as a synchronisation licence. A dubbing or master licence will also be necessary and this can be obtained from the copyright holder of the recording.

Library music
Libraries exist with extensive back catalogues of music composed with commercials, television and film firmly in mind. Whether you’re looking for something exciting or emotive, or to create suspense, all you have to do is pay a fee to the library to use its music without the need for extensive licencing procedures.

How long does music copyright last?

The typography of any musical score is protected for 25 years from the date it was first published. In the event it is republished in an original format this republication will be protected for 25 years from republication.

Can you protect the name of a band or musical group?

It’s not possible to copyright a band name but you might be able to register the name as a trade mark and use the ® symbol to prevent others from using it. Trade marking a brand name could well be possible providing the name itself is distinctive and will not be confused with any other existing name or band, nor is it offensive.

Who earns royalties from copyright music?

Holders of copyright music are legally due a royalty payment every time their work is played or aired in public via a recording, a live performance, radio broadcast or any other form. Royalties are also due to everyone who contributes to the overall development of a piece of music from song-writing and recording.

There are a number of organisations and Collecting Societies which collect and distribute royalties, relating to the various musical copyrights on behalf of the copyright owner:

Performing Right Society (PRS)
This non-profit making organisation gathers royalties on behalf of copyright owners e.g. publishers, composers and performers. Buildings such as gig and concert venues and radio broadcasters etc will inform PRS whenever they utilise copyright work.

Phonographic Performance Ltd (PPL)
Owned by the recording companies that collect royalties for performance and recording companies, this organisation retrieves royalties only when a recording is played in public and do not deal with live performances.

Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS)
This non-profit organisation collects and distributes royalties to those that own the rights to recording and distributing works in any format such as videos, DVDs, CDs, computer games and downloads etc.

The Music Publishers Association (MPA)
The MPA licence printed musical scores and collect royalties for the copyright owners, whilst actively promoting the songs. The MPA are helpful if you wish to liaise with or trace a particular copyright owner in order to obtain permission to use their work.

Video Performance Ltd (VPL)
This organisation licenses the broadcasting of video, collecting and distributing royalties from television stations, public houses, bars, restaurants and any other establishments that broadcast music videos publicly.

In summary, it’s vitally important that you never assume that a particular piece of music is free to use without obtaining the correct copyright permission. Always check with the copyright holders who will also be able to inform you of the licensing and royalty process.

There’s no doubt that UK copyright laws are often misunderstood. At the British Library’s Business and IP Centre we run workshops on Copyright for Business to help you better understand what copyright protects and how it can be used. Visit our events page to view our upcoming events. 

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