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Securing copyright permission for music

How much do music rights cost?

Music is often used in place of words to enhance or convey messages that elicit certain moods, and that includes workplace communications. Sales meetings, training events and product announcements are all examples of events that often feature music. Another use in the professional environment may be to sync a song with images. And, with digital music freely available on the internet, why not? It’s so easy to incorporate a favorite song from your favorite artist into your PowerPoint presentation!

Well, here’s the ‘why not’:

It’s a violation of copyright law to use the creative works of others—including music—without their permission.

When intending to use a song, either in its entirety or a segment, and whether for internal or external use, commercial businesses have a legal and ethical obligation to obtain permission from the rightsholder. The audience may range from an internal group of ten to an external conference of several hundred—if someone else’s music will be played among a group, this likely constitutes the need for permission.

We can’t provide copyright legal advice to them or to you, and this article does not constitute legal advice of any type.

However, I can share my knowledge of copyright law and intellectual property rights to help you determine the best way to secure music for your video, PowerPoint or other presentation medium.

Seeking permission to use that song from Bruce or Beyoncé

The cost and other terms of using music for your business communications can vary greatly, depending on the rights holders. As you might suspect, it’s much costlier to gain permission for songs from well-known commercial artists. Oftentimes, many parties hold copyright to the same piece of music. A song is likely to have multiple writers and publishers, which creates a higher cost and extended time frame for securing permission, as all parties must approve the request.

For instance, we had a request for the song “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars. With several rightsholders involved, the quote reached $30,000 with the potential to go higher. The requester asked about an instrumental version, but that didn’t change the cost. Having another artist perform the song reduced the fee somewhat, but not much. In the end, the idea was scrapped.

I am currently working on a music license that may fully execute for something called a music synchronization license or sync license. It gives the purchaser or licensee the right to use somebody’s music in a visual piece like a movie or commercial. This request is for a song from a rising commercial songwriter and singer that would be incorporated into a departmental video, playing as images are displayed. The video would be shown internally, with occasional external use, and the license would grant permission to have it accessible on the client’s intranet for one year.

We work with a vendor that specializes in copyright clearances of this nature, negotiating fees, and finalizing the license. In this case, the vendor was able to negotiate terms that reduced the cost by five thousand dollars, which is one of the reasons I expect this request to come to fruition. The process has taken seven weeks already and will take more time to secure payment and complete the paperwork.

LibSource copyright research experience

As part of the LibSource virtual research team, I handle a variety of copyright permission requests for one large, Fortune 500 client. Some of the use cases we have worked on include permission for the following music rights requests:

  • A song to incorporate into a “year in review” highlights video
  • Music for business development and marketing purposes
  • A 20-second segment of a song for an internal meeting
  • Playing background brass music at a diversity fair
  • Including the lyrics of a particular song in a company brand book—a song that mentions one of the company’s products by name

To embed music in a presentation or video, or to link music to any visual content requires a license. And license fees are the primary deterrent that keeps people from using the music they’re interested in. Synchronization license fees may range from ten to fifty thousand dollars and more, depending on the number of rightsholders, as each one will receive a percentage of the fee. A typical median price to secure a license to use a song in this manner is about $20,000. Once we get a quote and pass along the cost information, the requester typically does not proceed—not unless the music is being obtained for extraordinary purposes.

Time is another factor. We recommend a minimum of two months’ notice, though more time is optimal to work with all parties involved. Often people making the request have a shorter timeline and need the music much sooner.

How to obtain music rights

To obtain permission to use a piece of music, the requester will need to provide detailed information on the intended purpose.

Questions that may need answering include:

  • What is the purpose of the event, presentation or other circumstances for the music’s use?
  • If it’s an event, who is the host and who will be attending?
  • How large is the intended audience?
  • What is the nature and length of the video or other content that will incorporate the music?
  • Will you be advertising, promoting or marketing a business, product or service?

After obtaining the necessary and specific details of use, we work with vendors to negotiate the license. The license types cover things like performance, synchronization with imagery, and storage.

Licenses are often managed by Performance Rights Organizations or PROs. A PRO is an organization that represents rightsholders like songwriters. BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC are the major PROs representing U.S. composers and publishers of music.

PROs protect copyrights to ensure that songwriters, composers and music publishers are fairly compensated for their work. On the request side, PROs simplify the process by offering easier access and “one-stop-shopping”, though no single PRO represents the entire music spectrum. A business may pay these companies for public performance rights to the music they license. Especially in the case of popular songs with multiple writers and publishers, you may need to work with more than one PRO.

Alternatively, vendors are available to streamline the permission process. For a fee, these companies will work directly with the rightsholder(s) to pursue copyright permission, negotiate costs, and finalize the licensing paperwork on your behalf. Even if there is one author of a song, there are publishers and labels involved in copyright, especially for popular, commercial music. And it’s important to note that a rightsholder may deny permission for any number of reasons. For example, musicians often deny use of their songs by political campaigns or other organizations they don’t support.

Less costly ways to use music

If you want to use popular music from commercially successful artists at your business events or for multimedia content and communications, you can expect to spend tens of thousands of dollars. Knowing that, you do have other options for incorporating music:

  • Use copyright-free music. For example, much classical music, including the masters like Beethoven and Mozart, is in the public domain. Just know that specific arrangements and recordings of classical music are copyrighted separately, which means that even if the song is in the public domain, the interpretation could be someone’s active intellectual property.
  • Use original music. Perhaps you can work out an arrangement with an up-and-coming performing artist or songwriter that could meet your requirements for much less money. The internet has made this option easier and more viable.
  • Use royalty-free music. Stock photo companies like Getty offer extensive image libraries to suit virtually any need and similar services exist for music, such as Stockmusic.net. The fees are a fraction of the costs mentioned above. Stockmusic.net offers a sync license, the more expensive one I discussed earlier, for less than $100. A benefit here is that the license is perpetual, unlike the one-year term for typical sync licenses.

Any of these could be a viable option for music, and the cost is unbeatable.

Bottom line: Get permission before using somebody’s music

No matter what the music is, don’t assume that just because it’s freely available on sites like YouTube that it’s freely available for your use, especially for businesses, which face much greater risk and consequences for copyright violations. Again, check with your legal advisor to discuss your specific needs, as too many variables apply to address here and we are not qualified to offer IP legal advice.

If you want to gain access to most commercial music, from my understanding of a legal point of view, it is best to subscribe to all of the main PROs—BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC. Each subscription database is searchable to see if a piece of music is covered for company use. The music “supply chain” has a lot of hands in the pie, and paying all three PROs will help ensure you are copyright compliant when using a song within these databases.

In addition, because the process can be very burdensome and time-consuming and so many players are involved, consider LibSource as a virtual research option. You can tap into our experience of intellectual property and rights permission, as well as other subject matter. Click here to submit your query.

Music copyright permissions and licensing resources

BMI music licensing

ASCAP music licensing

SESAC music licensing

Royalty-free music options

Stockmusic.net

Audio Jungle (part of Envato)

SoundCloud

In addition, many of the large stock photo services like Shutterstock also offer royalty-free music.

U.S. copyright law

Sound recordings and music videos

Digital audio recording devices and media

Chrissy Taylor

Chrissy Taylor

Chrissy Taylor is a member of the Research & Intelligence team at LAC Group. Her professional experience includes copyright permissions research, legal research, electronic records management, and academic reference.
Chrissy Taylor

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