Music Copyright

Figuring out when you can use music, even in a nonprofit educational setting like LSU, is no easy matter.  There are a number of ways that all or part of a musical composition might used or shared and the same can be said of a particular sound recording.  Outside of a limited face-to-face classroom exemption, most uses of music are generally viewed as requiring a license and/or permission from one or more entities in control of particular uses and specific copyrighted musical materials.

First, consider that there are at least two separate copyrightable items that may be copyrighted:

  1. The musical composition, that is, the sequence of musical notes, including rhythm, melody, and harmony plus the lyrics and
  2. The sound recording, which covers the rendition or performance of the musical composition; the particular combination of sounds recorded and expressed in the physical medium.

The musical composition – the music and the lyrics – can have multiple authors and, thus, multiple copyright holders.  Typically, the music publisher controls (via an agreement or a © transfer) the copyright in the musical composition. (The Harry Fox Agency specifically represents music publishers so check here first. Another way to find a music publisher is to check a PRO -performing rights organization- music repetoire like BMI's music repertoire or ASCAP's ACE repertory (ASCAP's Clearance Express).  See also The Music Publishers Association, searching here.

[For a very informative article on basic music copyrights for a composer, as well as getting a good overview, see Now You Know Everything About Music Publishing… by Paul Resnikoff.

The sound recording also likely has multiple copyright holders including the vocalist, the musicians, the musical director or producer, the recording engineer, etc.  Usually any potential holders transfer their rights to the record company who then manages the copyright.

Using Music: The Reproduction, Distribution, and Performance Rights:

• If you want to reproduce © music, i.e., the music and/or lyrics, in print (like sheet music), you need a print license, usually from the publisher.

•  If you want to reproduce and distribute © music in physical formats - that is, you are going to perform the musical composition & distribute on cds, you need a mechanical license from the © owner or more likely, the Harry Fox Agency.

•  If you want to use a specific recording of a © work, you need a master license, usually from the record label who owns the specific recording;  if you wish to further distribute the specific recording, you also need a mechanical license, the Harry Fox Agency, again.  If the copyright holder of the underlying musical composition has not transferred copyright to the record label/producer, you will need to get permission from both the holder of the musical composition as well as the holder of the sound recording.
•  If you want to use the musical composition or the sound recording with a visual image(s), you need a synchronization license, from the music publisher.   Many U.S. publishers are represented, for purposes of a synchronization license by the Harry Fox AgencySee HFA's eSynch.
•  If you are going to also pair the music or sound recording with a dramatic work, like a play, you need grand performance rights, from the © holder or the publisher.
•  If you want to publicly perform a © musical work or sound recording [e.g., you are a radio station, concert venue, business establishment), you need a performance license, usually from a performance rights organization (PRO), like ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC.
•  If you are publicly performing digital music such as satellite radio, internet radio, cable TV music channels, and similar platforms for streaming digital sound recordings, you will need to pay statutory royalties, usually through SoundExchange.  Additionally, BMI has reached an agreement with Pandora over license rates, ending very lengthy litigation.
Music Copyright Information:
BMI's Copyright Short Subjects is excellent basic copyright law specific to music.
What Can You Use Without a License?
   A report from ACE, the American Council on Education
•  © C in a Circle - Exceptions To The Rule: When Unlicensed Uses of a Copyright Are Not InfringementsThis is a concise, accurate explanation of ten uses of © music that does not require permission and includes the educational exceptions such as face-to-face classroom settings and 'closed-circuit' transmissions that translate to online courses.  From BMI.
•  Legal Music for Videos from Creative Commons