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Copyright, Fair Use and Creative Commons

Copyright Rules for Using Music in Films

Why do you need permission?

            Stiff legal and financial penalties for not getting permission

            Inability to distribute your film; refusal of programmers to screen your film at festivals

            Give credit where it’s due; it’s just good professional courtesy

What type of permission do you need to get?

Every musical recording has two copyrights, one for the song itself and one for the particular recording of the song.  The songwriter is the initial owner of a song’s copyright.  Songwriters very often transfer their copyrights to a music publisher who owns and manages the writer’s collection of songs.  This protects the words and music.  The music publisher may be a large multinational corporation, for example Sony, or a one-person operation run by the songwriter, like Taylor Swift Music, although BMI manages her collection.

The sound recording copyright is usually owned by the record company.  This protects the musical performance and the audio sound recording of the song.  In order to use the song, you must obtain rights from both entities by getting the appropriate licenses.

There are two types of licenses you will get; synchronization and master use.  A synchronization or videogram license means the song is being synchronized with a video track of a program.   This license comes from the music publisher.

A master use license comes from the record company since you’re using a master copy of a sound recording owned by the record company.  The master use license permits the filmmaker to duplicate the recording on the film sound track.  If the film will be released on video or DVD, you must also get a videogram license.

How do you determine who owns the song or who the publisher is?

The record company is usually listed on the album cover or in the liner notes in a CD.  Very often you’ll see a P inside a circle with information following which is the copyright notice. Music published or recorded prior to 1972 will not have a sound recording copyright notice because recordings were not protected by copyright law before then.  Despite this, make note of the name of the record company since companies transfer ownership of songs frequently.

The websites listed below will aid you in finding the publisher of a song.  You’ll need to know at least the title or performer to find it.


ASCAP –, also see their checklist for using music in film


Music Publishing Association –

Harry Fox Agency –

These websites are also good clearinghouses for general licensing and rights information.  A word about using websites; there are numerous websites which provide not so accurate legal information about copyright and licensing of music.  Be aware of the author of the website, the date it was created and who the intended audience is.  When in doubt, always consult an attorney who specializes in copyright law.  Student filmmakers should always consult with their instructors for guidance in using copyrighted materials.