With the rise of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, the demand for online content has increased exponentially. Given this new reality, online content creators must take steps to ensure that their online creations don’t land them in legal hot water. One of the most prevalent cross-industry issues is music licensing. Music is everywhere in online content and often plays an integral part in the overall experience. From video game players streaming music as they show off their skills on the largest video platforms to fitness instructors using popular music to pump up their workout classes, individuals and companies must ensure that they don’t run afoul of the copyright laws when they incorporate music into their online content.
Copyright owners are granted an exclusive bundle of rights in relation to their copyrighted works, including the exclusive rights to reproduce, perform publicly, and distribute their copyrighted works.1 The copyright in music is broken down into two separate rights—one for the music’s composition (i.e., music and lyrics) and one for the actual sound recording (i.e., a fixed performance). Because of these dual rights, using copyrighted music may require two different licenses.
Whenever you release a video with a song that someone else wrote and composed, you need a synchronization (sync) license. For example, if you release a video of your band playing an Incubus song, you need a sync license to use the music and lyrics of that song, even if it’s a small portion of the song. You do not, however, need a sync license for songs that you wrote and composed yourself or songs in the public domain, so you’re free to use the song “Danny Boy” in your next YouTube video. But if you use a copyrighted sound recording in your video, you will need a sync license for the composition and a master use license for the original recording. Again, this applies even if you’re using a small portion of the original sound recording. Master use licenses are negotiated with a song’s owner—typically, a record label or the recording artist. Sync licenses and master use licenses are separate and distinct from public performance and personal entertainment licenses, which are not covered in this article. For a broader look at music licensing, please read this companion article. The following examples and best practices illustrate and address the challenges associated with using music in online content.