Guide to the Use and Licensing of Music in Film and Video

music license movie video
Still from the documentary film "Score - A History of Film Music" by Matt Schrader | © Excerpt film poster: NFP

Music licensing for film and video is a glassy ice field for many video producers. This often begins with the question of whether and under what conditions a piece of music may be used in a video. In this guide, you’ll find all the answers, links, and additionally even platforms for settlement-free music.

The structure of this guide to specific issues relating to the licensing of music for video begins with the question of the conditions under which musical works may be used without a licence and may be used in a video without remuneration. Our guide to dealing with music rights ends with the answers to whether you are allowed to use a world-famous piece of music, for example by Billie Eilish, for your film, and if so, how to go about calculating and requesting a music license.

What music do I not have to license for use in a video or movie?

The question of music that doesn’t require a music license to use in a video brings us right to the heart of the matter:

  • As a general rule, you do NOT have to license music for use in a film or video unless you own all the rights to it (i.e., you composed, lyricized, and recorded the music yourself).
  • You also don’t have to worry about licensing music when it comes to compositions that no longer have rights. This is because the composer or lyricist died a long time ago (usually more than 70 years ago). Then they are so-called works in the public domain. But again, you can only waive licensing if you play and re-record the music yourself. If you access an existing recording (original recording), there are most likely other rights that you need to acquire. See below under point 2.
  • You do not need a license in the sense of a compensation if you get all rights free of charge directly from the author.
  • Or if you use the video you’re scoring with protected music only in private. But watch out! The jurisdiction defines a private use very strictly! Watching a video with two or three friends at home is allowed. If you do the same thing at a club night, or post the video online, you are already committing copyright infringement and can get in big trouble.

How the licensing of music for video and movies works can only be understood with a minimal understanding of the legal background. But don’t worry, the basics are less difficult to understand than you might think.

In fact, there are only three basic things you need to know and consider when dealing with music and music licensing:

1 First of all, music is not only about a “purchase”, but also always about copyright. Anyone who composes a piece of music or writes the lyrics to it automatically owns the rights to it. This regardless of whether the piece is short or long and good or bad or more or less successful. You read that right: These rights arise without the author having to register his music title anywhere. So the famous copyright does not matter (at least in continental Europe) so that music is legally protected.

Likewise, anyone who believes that a piece of music only has to be licensed once it reaches a certain length is also mistaken. This is wrong from a legal point of view! While this rumor persists, there is no such paragraph in the law that allows it. The length of a song doesn’t matter. However, there are considerations as to whether in the distant future, under certain conditions, up to 20 seconds per audio track of music may be used without a license. But this is only a draft bill of the Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection (BMJV).

In addition, the mere combination of music with another medium such as film or video requires an acquisition of rights from the author. Even when the piece is heard completely unchanged in full length in a film.

The reason for this is simple to understand: Music as an independent and protected work can take on a new meaning through its use in another medium, which is not desired by the author. The silliest, but very illustrative example of this is a song used in a porno. Here it should be immediately clear that the creator of the music does not want to be associated with such a film work without being asked.

And, again, it is solely up to the copyright holder to decide whether to agree to be associated with another work and grant a music license. What this work (specifically, the video/film) says and how it is created does not change that. It is the rights holder who alone decides.

2Secondly, a distinction must be made between the right to use a work (as already mentioned, this also includes the connection of a piece of music with a film) and a music title in its original version. In the latter case, not only the rights of use for the use of the music in the film must be acquired, but also the right to the original recording.

An example: You want to use the Olympic song “HOCH” by Tim Bendzko in a customer video. In order to re-record the piece of music as a commissioned composition with a musician of your choice for the video (melody and lyrics), Tim or his music publisher must agree to a music license for a fee to be negotiated. Possibly, this is part of the freedom of contract, the management also makes further demands / conditions for the licensing of music, so that you get the right to use the melody and lyrics.

If you want to take over the original song, you must also acquire the right to the original recording. That costs again. But in return, provided the artist’s consent, you can then use the real song in a highly official way – and save the studio costs for a new recording at the same time.

3Thirdly, the composer, lyricist and other musicians involved do not only own copyrights to a piece of music. They also have the right to decide under what conditions their work may be reproduced and performed.

In practice, these performance and reproduction rights are far easier for film production companies and video producers to acquire than the rights of use and the rights to the original recording. This is because the reproduction and performance rights are not exercised by the majority of authors themselves. They have ceded this task to specialised organisations. In Germany this is GEMA, in Switzerland SUISA and in Austria AUME. They represent the author, regulate the payment for playing on radio, television or films and monitor the exploitation on behalf of the legislator – for example, how many times a song is played on the radio – and take over the collection for the music author / composer / lyricist. The good thing is that GEMA and its independent sister societies abroad work with fixed rates for their music licenses. Their price lists make the costs for reproduction rights and performance rights transparent and plannable.

Let’s summarize the three most important fundamentals so far:

  1. It is true that justices give different names to the right to use a piece of music. You can’t let that confuse you. Whether from to be licensed rights of use, of Synchronization Rights or from manufacturing law is spoken of, it always means the same thing: The Consent and compensation of the author (author / composer) in the context of the use of his music in a video or film according to point 1 above. The term “synchronisation rights” therefore has nothing to do with what the producer commonly understands by synchronisation.
  2. If the original piece is to be used in a video, lawyers speak of additional master rights or ancillary copyrights. This is the aforementioned point 2.
  3. Since anyone who combines films with a piece of music subsequently also wants to sell (reproduce and publish) it, in practice, in addition to the rights of use and any ancillary copyrights (if the original piece is to be used), reproduction rights, performance rights and streaming rights must also be acquired.

That was it with the most important legal basics. Because with this, you can now understand and comprehend the practical issues surrounding music licensing for video productions and films and more importantly – the answers.

Can I use a piece of music for my YouTube video without compensation?

You can do many things. The more important question is what happens afterwards. Let’s look at three typical cases that happen when you upload videos with a non-licensed piece of music on YouTube:

  • First, it’s possible that (at first) nothing seems to be happening. But that’s not as cool as the layman thinks it is. Because as you read above, there are hardly any compositions (except for classical music from the last century) that no one own s the copyrights to. It may be that the author does not exercise his rights. Or doesn’t know about the infringement of his copyrights. Only: that doesn’t change the fact that you’re violating his rights. There is no legal compulsion for a musician to actively exercise his rights. But the moment he does, whether it’s managing his music catalog more professionally or hiring new management for himself, your situation can change in a flash and become uncomfortable. If you are identifiable under your real name or as a video production, it is clear where the claim for damages flutters. In the case of commissioned productions such as image films, however, you as the production company often only find out about them as a second instance. Then, when your client contacts you in irritation and informs you that they are facing a threat of legal action, coupled with monetary demands. Because not only you as a person and producer, also your customer is liable for the missing license.
  • Second, shortly after uploading the video, or even weeks or months later, you may be asked by YouTube to prove the legality of the use with a music license. If your client has posted the video on their channel, or embedded it on their website from YouTube, they too will be asked to prove the correct licensing of music. If you cannot prove the right of use with legally binding documents, the rights holder decides how to proceed. Either he puts ads over your video – whose content you can neither hide nor turn off – or lets YouTube block your video. Repeated violations will result in a suspension / deletion of your account – or even messier – pulverization of your client’s channel along with all the followers the client has spent years building up.
  • Third, you’ll always sleep soundly if you haven’t purchased an actual license, but you’re running royalty-free music for your videos. The music that can be officially used on YouTube without payment also includes the songs that YouTube offers you in its own library. You can also edit them with YouTube’s own video tool. Crafty foxes take it a step further – even if it means putting one foot in the grey area of the channel’s terms of service. The trick goes like this: The free piece of music that YouTube offers you for use on your channel is backed up with a downloader, then professionally applied to the video in post-production using your editing program / sound mixing software. The advantage of this method is that you can mix the music in a much more targeted way and place the music cues on the scenes like a professional and thread them exactly to the frame. Nevertheless – you may still use the music alone and only on YouTube.

Like other channels, YouTube controls image and sound copyrights in a largely automated fashion. It is possible that you will be warned for music that can be used royalty-free but is not provided by YouTube itself. This always happens when the rights holder has deposited the music as his work on YouTube. Either you misunderstood the fine print – and the music you used is not royalty free. Or possibly just on the condition that YouTube plays ads into your video. Or, if you have written confirmation from the music rights owner for free use, you must include it in your response to the complaint.

What about rights-free music?

Those who speak of rights-free music usually mean music whose use is permitted without remuneration.

From a legal point of view, it is necessary to be more precise about the term “rights-free music“. Because every composer automatically gets the copyrights for each of his pieces, from the point of view of the law there are no pieces of music that are free of rights. There are only works for which the rights holder deliberately waives the exercise of his rights or for which he grants a licence without compensation . The exception that confirms this rule is public domain works. Here the rights are in fact no longer in existence, because in most European countries they expire 70 years after the death of the author.

In the case of music for which no remuneration is payable, the only reason why it is not necessary to obtain a licence is that the author grants the rights of use in advance and in a blanket manner to anyone without consulting him on certain conditions. A good example of this is the widely used Creative Commons licenses (abbreviated to CC licenses).

What role do Creative Commons (CC) licenses play in music licensing?

CC licenses (Creative Commons licenses) are referred to as free content. They are not rights free (not rights free), but free for certain uses. To what extent this freedom goes, the respective author is free to determine. That is why there are different categories of CC licenses. Their exact contents are defined in detailed conditions. As these are difficult to understand for legal laymen, there are also abridged versions of these unified contract clauses. In case of doubt, however, the detailed provisions always apply.

A summary of the three main types of Creative Commons licenses and what they mean:

  • ND (No Derivatives) means nothing else in the German language than: no processing. Because just adding music to a video is considered editing the piece of music, any use for film and video is prohibited here! If you do it anyway, you are violating copyright and can be sued.
  • NC (Non-Commercial): Music with this abbreviation may only be used for non-commercial purposes. But watch out: The criterion for commerciality is not the amount of revenue or whether money is earned with a video at all. An image film produced free of charge for a charity may well be considered a commercial purpose in the eyes of the law.
  • SA (Share-Alike) licenses mean distribution on equal terms. The consequences of this are not to be underestimated for you! Because a SA license means that you are only allowed to use the music under the condition that you allow other users for your own work (= for your video!) all other users on the web also the free use under Share-Alike conditions. As an example: If SA use is commercially permitted, you too must release your film for further commercial use to anyone for free! Only then is the use of the music under this license type free and legal.
  • CC-Zero license: the author waives all rights. With this type of license, and only here!, you can use the music freely and as you please, with no strings attached.

Creative Commons licenses can be combined and marked with the suffix “BY“. This component of the CC license means Attribution. Where it is attached, you may only use the music if you credit the author. The rights holder may determine how this is done.

Tip: As already explained, an author is free to determine which CC licenses he grants to third parties and companies, depending on his mood. Conversely, this freedom also means that he can extend (or, in the worse case, revoke) the releases at a later date. In practice, this means for you: If you are unsure, you can contact the rights holder directly and ask them whether they allow you to use the work, even if this is not provided for in the CC license. So even with an ND license, you may ask if they will kindly grant you an exception for your video.

Well-known providers and platforms that offer music on the Internet under Creative Commons licenses are:

There are also separate search portals for CC licenses on the web:

When using the preceding links, please always carefully check the type and content of the CC license for each piece of music in each individual case.

As a client, do I have to license a commissioned composition?

A commissioned composition is a piece of music that a composer / musician composes on behalf of a film or video production company for a fee. In the composition contract, the contractor (composer) regulates the transfer of rights, the scope of the transfer (duration, territories, types of use) to the producer. A professional contract thus regulates both the rights of use and the rights to the original recording. After all, the commissioning party does not just want a sheet of music as a work result, but usually a recorded music track.

Nevertheless, you usually have to license the commissioned composition additionally. Why? The vast majority of composers have made a commitment to the copyright societies to let them manage all existing and future reproduction rights in the context of the licensing of music. With this deal, the author is relieved of the tedious control of how in detail the exploitation of the video or film with his composition takes place.

For you as the client, the general assignment of the rights to reproduction to an organisation specialising in this means that the composer cannot – even if he wants to – assign them to you in the form of a music licence. Because he no longer has those rights himself. In order to license a commissioned composition correctly, you must register it with GEMA, AUME or SUISA and acquire the reproduction rights according to the published tariff lists.

As the commissioner of a composition, you are only exempt from this obligation to register if your contractor is not a member of a collecting society or a corresponding professional association. However, you are unlikely to find anyone with talent who has not transferred their rights to reproduce for their protection. If only because some collecting societies also assume the function of a pension fund for composers as freelance artists.

How do I acquire rights and licenses to an existing, well-known piece of music?

To be able to use an original song or an original film soundtrack for your video or in your image film, you have to overcome three hurdles:

  1. You need the permission of the copyright holder of the composition and lyrics to put the music under your film / video. For reasons of proof you want this commitment without exception in written form with legally valid signatures. The control, whether the correct persons put their autograph under the contract, is thereby incumbent on you.
  2. Additionally you need a permission to use the existing recording in the original. This from all persons who own rights to the original recording. Of course, you also want this commitment in writing and legally binding.
  3. Finally, otherwise you are not allowed to publish and reproduce your film, you also need the appropriate rights.

Once you have successfully negotiated and completed steps 1 and 2, acquiring the reproduction rights is a piece of cake. Because here the prices are based on the tariff lists of the management companies (GEMA, AUME, SUISA) and you no longer have to deal with contact persons who, as music managers, are directly committed to the artist, his career and his image in their decisions.

Who is responsible for ensuring that the licensing of music for film and video is done correctly?

You are responsible for the proper licensing of music for film and video. Didn’t research all the rights holders, or didn’t ask a co-owner, or didn’t get a response, and still put the composition in your video: Your problem! It is true that whoever claims an infringement of his rights must prove / demonstrate it. You are liable and liable for damages. But not alone.

In the case of commissioned productions, your client is also liable, because by using an incorrect or unlicensed video, he also violates the rights of the owner. As a contractor, you will subsequently be held liable by your client – they will charge you for their damages.

Remember, this tends to get forgotten in the creative heat of the moment: A rights holder to a song has no obligation to grant you the necessary rights. There are composers and rights holders who, on principle, do not release their music for use in films or videos. So you should always check the availability of the license rights early on. Do you create a layout or a cut version for customer presentations without prior clarification of the music license, you are not only committing an infringement (even a layout movie with protected music is no private use!), but possibly program you and your customer or boss also extra work and disappointments in advance. That is, if you do not get the necessary rights.

How do I find out who is my right contact for music rights licensing?

To find out who owns the rights of use (synchronisation rights / production rights to a song), you can access an online database of GEMA free of charge. At https://online.gema.de/werke/search.faces you can easily find the names of the responsible copyright holders for composition and lyrics (lyricists) as well as the respective music publishers. You can see here at a glance if an artist composed his song alone and wrote the lyrics with / without a co-author. This is revealing because the other contributors to a song are usually not in the public eye. Nevertheless, they also own all copyrights.

Registration mask “Repertoire search” of the free GEMA database for a music license | © Screenshot: filmpulse.info

Repetoiresuche Online für Musiklizenzierung

If you want to request / acquire the rights to an original recording, you can find out the rights holders on the Internet, for example via the web database https://www.discogs.com/.

Licensing of music: Database Discogs | © Screenshot: filmpulse.info

lizenz-musik-video-film-erwerben-DISCOGS

Remember that in addition to the rights of use and – if desired – the right to the original recording, you must also acquire the exploitation rights. Also, licenses must always be requested in the country in which the licensee / invoice recipient is based. If you want to license music in more than one country, you can usually still arrange it through your local contact. Copyright societies cooperate across countries.

What do music rights cost: How much budget do I need to calculate music licensing?

For exploitation rights and original compositions the prices depend on the popularity of the artist and song. Another decisive factor is the question of how many countries and for how long the rights are to be acquired. The costs for these rights can be in the low four-digit range. Or soar to astronomical heights. If you want to use “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones in the original composition, you have to invest a small fortune.

In order to be able to calculate reliably for a video production or a film production, the possible availability of music rights and their pricing must be clarified at the beginning of the project. Only in this way is a realistic music budget possible and can production values be handled professionally.

Music publishers are usually happy to provide a guideline quote for licensing music for film and video. The prerequisite for this is a reliable, professional enquiry for an indicative price. It should contain at least the following information:

  • Duration for which the music license is to be purchased?
  • Area (territory) for which the licence must be valid?
  • Description of the intended use of the music title
  • Production details / production budget
  • Information on the licensee (Who is the contractual partner?)
  • In which media / on which channels should the film / video be used later?

Depending on the complexity of the request, the clarification of a music license, which the music publisher coordinates with the rights holder, can take a few days or even four to eight weeks. In principle, the principle of “input = output” also applies to requests for an offer / a target price for music rights. The more complete the request, the easier it is to respond professionally and the shorter the time frame required to do so.

The majority of all musicians assign reproduction rights, performance rights and streaming rights to GEMA / SUISA / AUME. Because no one can transfer more rights than they have, the result is that even a band that plays its own songs in front of an audience has to pay royalties for them at a concert. Via the management companies, these levies (minus a management fee) then later flow back to the artists. The tariffs and types of payment for reproduction can be viewed on the Internet. They are based, among other things, on the number of units produced, such as the number of storage media such as Blu-Ray discs.

Excursus: the use of music in TV productions

The use of music for TV productions and series shown on television is subject to special rules.

In general, TV events have concluded special framework agreements for music licenses with the copyright societies (GEMA, SUISA). This is usually in the form of a lump sum settlement. In concrete terms, this means that broadcasters are free to select music and songs for their productions; they only have to communicate the specific music titles used in a music list to the collecting societies. Consequently, if you work as a TV production on behalf of and for television, you are much freer in the use of the music titles and in matters of licensing than if you work as a commissioned production for a corporate client.

Nevertheless, the same applies here: The framework agreement for the flat-rate usage fee of a TV broadcaster can, by its very nature, only cover those rights which the rights holder has released for use. In practice, however, these are almost all songs that you also hear on the radio.

Nevertheless, it is advisable to clarify the exact conditions of the music selection with the broadcaster in advance in the case of a series production or a TV movie that is intended for use on television. Especially because no one wants to exchange music pieces later on in case of a possible resale of a production due to problems with licensing.

Disclaimer

Please note that different rights and customs apply depending on the territory. What applies to GEMA in Germany does not automatically have to be correct one-to-one for Visa in Switzerland or AUME in Austria. Moreover, more importantly, there are substantial differences in the construction of copyright between the continental European and Anglo-Saxon legal systems. This guide to the correct licensing of music for film and TV can therefore not replace professional legal advice. In the interests of comprehensibility and readability, simplifications have been made and some important legal distinctions have been omitted.

Do you have questions, are you missing answers or do you want to share your own experiences? We are looking forward to your feedback in the comment field or via contact form.

This article was automatically translated into English using AI. If you would like to help us improve the quality, we would be happy to hear from you.

Editorial Staff Filmpulse
About Editorial Staff Filmpulse 264 Articles
Under the designation Editorial Staff Filmpulse, articles appear that are created or edited jointly by several members of the editorial staff.

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