Ultimate Guide to Legal Music for Content Creators

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Copyright laws protect creative works and intellectual property of all kinds.

Content creators, who make a wide range of creative work for an online or digital medium, are protected by copyright laws.

However, if a content creator decides to use a specific song in their work, this song is also protected by copyright law. This means the content creator needs to purchase a license for the work, which can become complicated, depending on who holds the license, what type of license is needed, and how much it costs.

What Is a Content Creator?

Although artists have created “content” for thousands of years, the concept of the content creator is a 21st century invention, alongside the rise of social media and more media-focused websites.

Generally speaking, a content creator is someone who makes creative, educational, or entertaining work expressed through an online or digital medium. Although someone working in a creative industry can create content for any type of medium, most people consume creative works in digital form, through the internet. Even if an audience member consumes artistic or creative work in other forms, they are likely regular social media consumers too.

Businesses can rely on content creators for a variety of purposes, including advertising, email campaigns, newsletters, blogs, social media posts, photography for branding purposes, video or audio productions, editorial contributions, internal memos, and other material. Visual, auditory, and written communication are all forms of content that certain content creators specialize in.

For example, someone who manages a recipe blog may take beautiful photos, but they are more focused on written communication. Someone who is a makeup artist may create YouTube videos, but their Instagram and Snapchat presence may be more vital for daily content creation associated with their brand.

Content creators who make videos, podcasts, or other content that uses sound often need to find music or sound effects to pair with their creations. Many musicians and composers offer royalty-free sounds or compositions that fall under Creative Commons licensing, which allows content creators to use these auditory works for free or cheap.

However, a content creator may decide to use a piece of music that is subject to other copyright laws. This guide can help you understand how best to approach this process.

What Is Copyright? Who Does It Protect?

Content creators’ original work is protected by United States copyright law, but if a content creator wants to use another artist’s work within their work, that piece is subject to copyright protections too.

Copyright laws protect intellectual property, which is a creative work that has been “published” in any fixed, tangible medium. For example, if a writer finishes a novel but it is in several handwritten pages, this is protected by copyright law. A musical composition that has been performed by a band in a recording studio and published to a record or CD is also protected intellectual property.

Essentially, copyright laws protect an artist’s work from being tampered with in ways that harm the work’s integrity. By maintaining the intellectual property rights of their work, creative workers can ensure that their original idea remains intact and, often, that they receive fair compensation for this work.

If someone else attempts to re-record a song, distribute this song for profit, perform the work without credit, or make changes, derivations, arrangements, samples, or parodies of the work, that person must pay a licensing fee to do this.

As a content creator, you cannot just use a popular song in your video, on your social media account, or as part of any of your branding. This song can directly or indirectly impact your income, so you must purchase a license to use the work as a way to ensure that the original artist also benefits from your company’s gain, which they helped you with.

What Types of Musical Licenses Will I Need?

Basically, if you want to use a piece of music, you need to find out who manages the license you need so you can use it. This might be the original musician or composer; it could be the music publisher; or it could be a performing rights organization (PRO).

Typically, start by contacting a PRO to see if the song is in their catalogue. They will either negotiate a contract with you so you have access to the song or help you find the contact information for the music publisher so you can set up a contract with them.

There are six basic types of music licenses:

  1. Synchronization license, or sync license: This covers the use of a musical track associated with an audiovisual project. If you make YouTube videos, for example, putting a musical track into a sped-up montage sequence might require a sync license.
  2. Master license: This also authorizes you to use music with an audiovisual project, but this also transfers the original song rights to the customer, so you can make copies of the recording, change the song, or make other creative tweaks.
  3. Public performance license: This covers any type of performance from live to broadcast. If you attend a conference for content creators and play a video featuring a specific song, for example, you will likely need to acquire a public performance license for this use at this event.
  4. Mechanical license: This allows you to make copies of a song and distribute it to your audience as your work. This is not often part of a content creator’s concerns, but if you, for example, make a DVD of your web series and have licensed a song for use online, you may need to acquire this license for the distribution of your DVD.
  5. Print license: This allows you to make copies of the sheet music associated with the song. As a content creator, you might use a visual representation of the sheet music in your social media presence, which could constitute making a copy, so you should consider getting this license.
  6. Theatrical license: This allows a theater or live stage performance to use a song. If you, as a content creator, are likely to perform a song yourself in a live event for your fans, you may need to get this license.

If you are concerned about properly negotiating one of these licenses, or getting one type of license but actually needing another later, consider working with a PRO to get a blanket license, which allows you access to the PRO’s catalogue for most purposes.

PROs are also very conscious of changes associated with the internet. For example, BMI offers digital licenses for content creators, which allow you to discuss your work, and they will offer suggestions for licenses that suit your needs.

You can also find music that is royalty-free, meaning you can use it for any purpose, sometimes with an upfront payment, without negotiating a specific license.

How Can I Know I Have the Right Type of License?

Depending on the type of license you get, you may be able to alter the music. For example, if you make electronic remixes of songs and release them online, you can purchase some licenses from a PRO that cover this type of work. But, as a popular electronic music artist, you may use other types of media to promote yourself, and this is where licensing can become tricky.

While you can work with a PRO, even large PROs might not have all the songs you want to use in your work. Instead, you can consider working with a commercial music streaming service to have access to even more music, without worrying about licensing details or needing to pay for different licenses later.


What Is a Content Creator and How to Become One. (December 2020). Adobe.

Digital Licensing Overview. BMI.

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