Music Licensing

Most commonly heard music has copyrights. A copyright is a acknowledgement of ownership by law that permits the owner of a copyright to prevent others from reproducing, displaying, performing, or distributing ideas expressed in a fixed medium such as text, film, videotape, sound recording, computer disk, or 3-dimensional form. Music falls into this 'copyrightable' category.

If you play, perform, or record any music that you have not created, you are using copyrighted music. This is only exempt if the composer has been dead for more than 50 to 70 years (depending on the country). Which is the case for most classical and traditional music and from all around the world (excluding arrangements).

When is a license is needed?

You need a license to play or use any copyrighted music. When you buy to a CD, you have brought a licence to play the music on the CD for your own personal use. If you want to do anything more with the music, like playing it in front of an audience, use it in a work (like a video), reproduce or record your own version, you will need another licence.

What type of licenses are there?

There are three general types of licences.

  • A performance license is required to be able to play copyrighted music "live" or recorded music in front of an audience.
  • A mechanical license is written permission from the publisher to manufacture and distribute a record, CD or audio tape fora specific copyrighted composition. The amount of the royalty paid to a songwriter from a mechanical license is determined by how many recordings are sold.
  • Synchronization licenses allows you to use copyrighted works combination with visual images such as music in films, TV, videos, computer programs.

How to get Licences

The process of getting permission to use a piece of music is often referred to as "clearing the rights" to the music or securing a "license" from the owner of the copyright. Since nobody can track down all composers or publishers to obtain such permissions, agencies have been established.

Which agency is responsible for your licensing depends on the country you live in, but each agency knows the others very well and they will direct you to the right one, if you come to them by accident. Especially in the USA there are several agencies doing the same type of licensing for only a part of copyright owners but all know of the others and have the address. If you are unsure, ask one of them and they can help direct you.


United States


United Kingdom

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