August 24, 2023

Beginners Guide to Music Copyright and Licensing

For a lot of content creators, music licensing is a complex and baffling space; and one that causes a lot of stress for those who need to navigate it for their work but don’t really know how or where to start. Here’s a simplified breakdown to help you on your way!

Finding the perfect track for your video is special. When the beat drops or the violins swell in the exact right moment... that's magic. But for many creators out there, finding music to use in your content is its own special hell. Navigating legals around copyright and trying to understand what you can and can't do with the track you've found is complicated and changes depending on where you get your music. If you're a beginner, it's even more overwhelming. We're here to help. Read on for a handy cheatsheet on music copyright and licensing to help you find what you're looking for and what suits your needs best.

What is music copyright? 

The creator of an original musical work holds several rights over their protected composition. These rights are granted automatically upon the creation of the work and are protected by copyright law. Here are the key rights that a creator has over their protected musical work:

  • Reproduction Right: The reproduction right allows the creator to control the making of copies of their musical composition. It means that others cannot duplicate, copy, or reproduce the composition without the creator’s permission. This right covers physical copies like CDs and printed sheet music, as well as digital copies like MP3 files or streaming audio.
  • Distribution Right: The distribution right gives the creator the authority to control the distribution of their musical composition. It means that others cannot distribute or sell copies of the composition without the creator’s permission. This right applies to both physical distribution, such as selling CDs or vinyl records, and digital distribution, like selling or streaming digital downloads.
  • Public Performance Right: The public performance right allows the creator to control the public performance of their musical composition. This includes live performances of the song in venues, concerts, or public events, as well as its use in radio broadcasts, TV shows, and online streaming platforms. For public performances, creators are often represented by performing rights organizations (PROs), which collect royalties on their behalf from venues and broadcasters.
  • Derivative Works Right: The creator has the right to control the creation of derivative works based on their musical composition. A derivative work is a new work that incorporates the original composition in some way. This includes adaptations, arrangements, remixes, and other modifications of the original piece. Anyone wishing to create a derivative work must obtain the creator’s permission.
  • Display Right: The display right allows the creator to control the public display of their musical composition. This right typically applies to sheet music, musical notation, and other visual representations of the composition.
  • Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings (DPRA): For creators who also perform or record their compositions, they hold additional rights related to sound recordings. The DPRA grants creators the right to control the digital public performance of their sound recordings, such as when they are streamed on online platforms.

These rights collectively grant creators significant control over how their music is used, reproduced, distributed, performed, and adapted. They allow creators to earn royalties from various uses of their music and ensure that their creative efforts are protected and respected by others.

Who owns the rights to any given song?

A song or track could have several rights holders, depending on who contributed to its creation. 

  • Songwriter(s) or Composer(s): The individuals who wrote the music (melody) and/or lyrics of the song are the primary rights holders. They hold the copyright to the musical composition itself, which includes the melody and the underlying musical elements.
  • Lyricist(s): If the song has lyrics, the person or people who wrote the lyrics are also considered rights holders and share copyright ownership with the songwriters or composers.
  • Music Publisher(s): Music publishers are companies or individuals who acquire the rights to administer, promote, and license the musical composition on behalf of the songwriters or composers. They handle the business aspects of the song, such as licensing for use in various media, collecting royalties, and ensuring proper attribution.
  • Record Label(s): If the song has been recorded and released, the record label that produced and released the recording also becomes a rightsholder. They hold the copyright to the specific sound recording or master recording of the song.
  • Performing Rights Organizations (PROs): PROs represent songwriters, composers, and music publishers and manage their performance rights. They collect royalties on behalf of these rights holders whenever the song is publicly performed, broadcasted, or streamed.

The specific rights holders and their roles can vary from song to song, especially if multiple individuals or entities were involved in the creation and promotion of the song. For example, a song might have multiple songwriters, multiple music publishers, and different record labels for various releases or versions of the recording.

In some cases, songwriters or composers may also be their own music publishers, or artists might release their music independently without the involvement of a record label. However, when a song is well-known or commercially successful, it often involves multiple rights holders working together to manage the song's rights and ensure fair compensation for their creative contributions.

What is music licensing?

Music licensing is the process of obtaining permission to use copyrighted music in video content or other forms of media. Music is intellectual property, and as such, it is protected by copyright laws. To legally use copyrighted music in your videos, you must obtain the necessary licenses from the rightful owners, typically the music's composers, songwriters, and recording artists.

Types of music licenses

There are different types of music licenses and they grant different permissions for how a particular song or track can be used. Ensuring you get the RIGHT license for your needs is very important. 

  • Public Performance License: A public performance license allows the public performance or playing of a copyrighted musical work in a public setting. It is required when music is played in venues like restaurants, bars, concert halls, and retail stores, or when used in live events, concerts, or public gatherings. Performance rights organizations (PROs) manage these licenses and collect royalties from businesses that use music in public settings, distributing the payments to the songwriters and composers.
  • Synchronization License (Sync License): A sync license allows the use of copyrighted music in synchronization with visual content, such as videos, films, commercials, TV shows, and video games. This license is essential for video creators who want to add music to their projects. It is called a "sync" license because it syncs the music with the visuals in the video.
  • Mechanical License: A mechanical license permits the reproduction and distribution of a copyrighted musical composition in audio-only form. It is required when artists or record labels want to cover a song and release it on an album, for example. Mechanical licenses are often obtained from music publishers or the Harry Fox Agency, which handles mechanical licensing in the United States.
  • Master Recording License: A master recording license grants permission to use a specific recording (master) of a song. If you want to use a particular version of a song performed by a specific artist or band, you need to obtain a master recording license from the record label or the rights holder of that recording.
  • Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings (DPRA): This type of license covers the digital public performance of sound recordings, such as streaming music on digital platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube. DPRA licenses are typically managed by PROs and organizations like SoundExchange.
  • Blanket License: A blanket license is a comprehensive license that covers the use of an entire catalog of music from one or more rights holders. These licenses are often used by businesses, broadcasters, and online streaming platforms to simplify the licensing process for a large collection of music.

Royalty-free music licensing

Royalty-free music companies like Epidemic Sound streamline the music licensing process by offering easy-to-use, comprehensive libraries of music tracks, simplified usage rights, and a one-time licensing fee. Their approach makes it convenient for content creators to find suitable music for their projects while adhering to legal and licensing requirements.Here's an overview of how they typically manage music licensing:

  • Royalty-Free Model: Unlike traditional licensing models that require payment for each use of a song, royalty-free music companies follow a one-time licensing fee approach. Content creators pay a fixed fee to obtain the rights to use the music in their projects, and there are usually no additional royalties or usage fees after the initial purchase.
  • Comprehensive Music Library: Royalty-free music companies curate extensive music libraries with a diverse collection of tracks spanning various genres, moods, and styles. This comprehensive selection allows content creators to find the perfect music to match their specific needs and preferences.
  • Easy Licensing Process: These companies prioritize a user-friendly licensing process. Creators can often access the music through subscription plans or individual track purchases. Once licensed, creators gain the right to use the music in their projects without worrying about further payments or licensing hurdles.
  • Simplified Usage Rights: The licenses offered by royalty-free music companies usually cover a wide range of uses, including commercial projects, social media content, advertising, and more. The license terms are often clear and straightforward, reducing confusion and potential legal issues for content creators.
  • Legal Protection and Clearance: Royalty-free music companies typically ensure that all tracks available in their libraries are cleared for commercial use and have obtained all necessary permissions from the original creators. This helps to protect content creators from copyright infringement claims and ensures that they can use the music safely and legally.
  • Customizable Tracks: Some royalty-free music companies offer customizable tracks, allowing creators to adjust the length, tempo, and arrangement of a song to fit their specific project's requirements.
  • Subscription Models: Many royalty-free music companies offer subscription plans that provide creators with unlimited access to their music libraries for a fixed monthly or yearly fee. This subscription-based approach allows content creators to explore and use a wide range of music without breaking the bank.
  • High-Quality Audio: To maintain professional standards, royalty-free music companies often provide high-quality audio files, ensuring that the music sounds great in various media formats and platforms.

Splash offers an unlimited commercial license to its users. What does this mean? 

An unlimited commercial license in music licensing is a type of license that grants the licensee (the person or entity obtaining the license) broad and unrestricted rights to use a specific piece of music for commercial purposes. Commercial purposes refer to any use of the music in connection with a business, product, service, or promotional material that aims to generate revenue or profit.

With an unlimited commercial license, the licensee typically has the freedom to use the licensed music in a wide range of projects, such as:

  • Films and videos: The music can be incorporated into films, documentaries, corporate videos, YouTube videos, and other multimedia projects.
  • Advertisements and commercials: The music can be used as background music in TV or online advertisements, radio spots, or promotional videos.
  • Apps and video games: The music can be used as part of the soundtrack in mobile apps, video games, and interactive software.
  • Websites and social media: The music can be included in the background of websites, social media posts, or online presentations.
  • Live events and performances: The music can be played at public events, concerts, or live performances.
  • Audiovisual presentations: The music can be used in presentations, slideshows, and other visual content.

An "unlimited" commercial license means that the licensee can use the music without any restrictions on the number of times it is used or the duration of each use. It also allows for the music's use across multiple projects. 

It's essential to note that the terms and conditions of an unlimited commercial license can vary depending on the specific agreement between the licensor (the copyright owner or their representative) and the licensee. At Splash, we ask that our users abide by the caveats in our Terms of Use ( in all circumstances where they are using music they created using Splash Pro. With any licensing agreement, it is essential to read and understand the fine print!