Whenever you hear a song playing on FM radio, or a production company wants to use a specific song in a movie, that music has been licensed. Technically, restaurants also need to license the music they play for their customers! In today's topsy-turvy music industry, licensing is one of the only avenues for artists and labels to get paid for their work. Below, we've outlined how the basic licensing system works, how to license music for a commercial project, and why retaining copyright ownership can make all the difference.
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What is a Sound Recording?
Almost any recording — whether it be music, conversation, or captured audio in the field — is considered a sound recording, and subject to copyright laws. However, you can own the copyright for the actual recording, the notes played in the recording, the lyrics, or all of the above. As soon as you write and record a song, you own the copyright. That means you can license the recording, notes, and/or lyrics, as well as enforce your ownership in court. For legal purposes, we also recommend registering your recordings with the U.S. copyright office.
How to License Music
So you've found the perfect song for the climax of your short film, but don't know how to get the rights. First, you'll need to get in contact with the song's publisher, who works on behalf of the artist to ensure that they get paid for their compositions. If the song has been released on a label, they may own the sound recording rights, so you'll need to contact them as well.
Meanwhile, radio stations, restaurants, any other private establishments that play music must obtain public performance rights. This allows artists to get compensated fairly, without having to figure out exactly how many times you played each song. Radio stations can purchase a blanket license from ASCAP or BMI, and each company has a catalog of around 4 million songs. This allow the stations to play what they like, and then the licensing companies split up the money and send it to artists/labels.
What about if you're an amusement park, shopping mall, boutique hotel, or any other business that incorporates music into their product? By law, you still have to pay the same public performance rights. Technically, even street musicians that make money playing "Wonderwall" owe a few dollars to Oasis!
For actual businesses, though, you'll need to fill out a form on the BMI or ASCAP website that specifies how large your floor plan is, how much you charge people for a product/service, and a few other details. Then, the licensing company will come up with a fair compensation structure to use their music for the year.