Royalty Free Music: What It Is, What It Isn’t, and Why It’s A Great Choice

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If you’re a videographer or filmmaker, you know what goes into capturing a scene. It starts with the shots, takes form during editing, and comes to life with the addition of the right music. With your head already full of information about F-stops and lens lengths, Adobe Premiere and Final Cut, trying to have an entertainment lawyer’s understanding of music copyright law isn’t quite practical.

If you’re a videographer or filmmaker, you know what goes into capturing a scene. It starts with the shots, takes form during editing, and comes to life with the addition of the right music. With your head already full of information about F-stops and lens lengths, Adobe Premiere and Final Cut, trying to have an entertainment lawyer’s understanding of music copyright law isn’t quite practical.

In the plainest possible terms, the exclusive protections afforded to a song (the things the copyright owner can do that you can’t) by copyright law apply for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years, and are as follows:

  • Reproduction of the work
  • Adaptation or arrangement of the work
  • Performance of the work
  • Displaying, distributing, or selling copies of the work
  • Pairing the work with visual images
  • Licensing other parties to do any of these things

An interesting point to understand about this is what a “work” really is. When you listen to a song, you’re essentially experiencing two pieces of copyrighted content, the specific sound recording you’re hearing, and the underlying musical composition that it’s a recording of – the “idea” of the song, so to speak.  That means if you wanted to get permission to use one of your favorite songs in a video, you’d need permission from both the record label and the publishing company who own those two separate copyrights.

If that sounds complicated to you, don’t feel bad – it is. Dealing with licensing on this level is difficult and prohibitively expensive for up-and-coming visual creators, which is why many will use royalty-free music services to secure music for their projects without infringing on any copyrights

“Free” is a funny word when it comes to music

There are really three main criteria when it comes to looking for the ideal music for videos.

  • Is it affordable?
  • Is it legal to use?
  • Is it good?

All three of these things are pretty closely related to one another, and in a lot of cases, you’ll have to sacrifice one of these categories to fulfill the others. Let’s break down a couple of those scenarios, taking a look at which music options might apply to each.

Public Domain MusicFree to use, no legal restrictions, but probably not what you’re looking for.

Of the different types of music we’ll talk about, works in the public domain are the only ones that are truly free to use without strings attached. Occasionally a song may be in the public domain because it’s creator forfeited their copyright  claim altogether, but the vast majority of public domain music is there because the copyright has expired. Don’t expect your favorite Beatles tunes to free up any time soon, though – currently, it’s works published in or before 1924 that make up the public domain.

There is a slight catch though. Just because a composition like “Claire de Lune” or Beethoven’s Fifth is in the public domain doesn’t mean you can use any recorded performance of it you’d like. Remember, master recordings and underlying compositions are both protected separately, so you’d either need to pick a recording that was also created before the cutoff date, or record your own version of the song.

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Creative Commons Licensed MusicFree to use, a much more modern selection, but more strings attached than a marionette.

If you’ve ever turned to Google for help finding free-to-use music, you’ve probably run into the term “Creative Commons License”. The Creative Commons license is a pretty cool thing at heart, affording generous creators the opportunity to let other creators use their work free of charge, but it can get complicated and a little legally sketchy pretty quickly, depending on how you want to use a song protected under a CC license.

There are actually several types of CC licenses, each of which adds different restrictions. At the bare minimum, you always have to credit the creator, but CC license holders can also decide that their work may not be modified or be used for any commercial purposes whatsoever.

So, while there are some attractive qualities of Creative Commons music, using it means running the risk of landing yourself in copyright trouble by making a misstep regarding the specific terms of a given song.

Royalty Free MusicNot free but often affordable, massive selection of styles, and no legal hoops to jump through.

If you don’t want to deal with the headaches of chasing down rights holders for expensive licenses, wading through the swamp of the public domain, or walking on eggshells with Creative Commons music, using a royalty free music service provides a great solution.

“Royalty free” means that keeping track of the individual plays of a song you’ve used in your video and paying out the appropriate royalties isn’t your problem. Instead, you pay either a one-time fee to license a specific track or a subscription fee for access to a library of tracks that you can then use in your projects as often as you need.

After that, you’re all set. Regardless of whether your video gets seen by a hundred people or a million, you won’t have to pay anything extra, and there’s no need to worry about accidentally committing copyright infringement. For these reasons, royalty free music services are almost always the go-to choice for visual creators who don’t want to sacrifice quality, risk legal trouble, or deal with the unnecessary distractions of other options.

Is it really that big of a deal to sneak in music I don’t have the rights to?

Look, we’re not the cops, or your mother, or Metallica. Depending on who you ask, you might even be told that it’s not a huge deal to knick a little bit of music for your video or film, just this once. But, the more accomplished the person is who you’re talking to, the less likely it is you’d ever be given that advice.

Pretty much any scenario in which you put copyrighted music in your video without permission has negative consequences. The last thing you want to have happen after working hard on so many different aspects of a project is to get hit with a copyright strike or a cease and desist letter for the twenty seconds of unlicensed music you thought you could get away with.

And, legal ramifications aside, it’s just not a very good look. Again, we’re not the morality police (see: Metallica), but, while it’s easy for a filmmaker or videographer still starting out to feel as though well-established musicians shouldn’t mind their music being used, the fact remains that creators should have each others’ backs in realizing that we all deserve to have a say in what gets done with what we make.

Keep it easy, keep it affordable, try Jambox

Hopefully this article helped you pick up some new information about music copyright law and how it applies to your work. We did our best to squeeze in as much as we could, but definitely recommend doing some research of your own to really find out which of the options we talked about is best for you.

If you do decide that royalty free music sounds like exactly the affordable, adaptable, and worry-free solution you’re looking for, check us out at Jambox. We’re creators who love helping creators create things (we didn’t say we were poets), and have an incredible library full of any kind of music you might need made by some of the best composers and producers in the business.

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