Music Copyright for Filmmakers

Music Copyright for Filmmakers (Essential Guide)

Reading Time: 5 minutes

We look at everything you need to know about music copyright including areas like public domain music, YouTube copyright songs and our top tips on using music in films.

Firstly, creating incredible films should always be the main focus for filmmakers. But, when it comes to soundtracking and using music in film, many just don’t know enough about music copyright and the risks.

So with this ultimate guide to music copyright in films, you can stick to making content without worrying about copyright songs and pesky claims.

Also, make sure you check out Epidemic Sound where you can sign up for a 30-day free trial and get access to their full library of copyright free songs. That’s 35,000 royalty-free tracks covering 160 genres and 90,000 premium sound effects for free! 😉

Music copyright gives the producers of a musical composition exclusive rights. This includes making copies, selling or distributing copies, using, or performing the music publicly.

For filmmakers, this means you need to own the rights or have permission to use music in your films. To use music freely involves owning all the rights to the master recording, composition, performance, and all of the underlying music. This means that you have to have written and recorded it yourself, have permission from the music producers, or source your tracks from a music catalogue with all rights included.

If you’re planning to publish your film publicly or create films for an agency or client, these rules apply to you. Whether you’re producing the next Oscar-winner or making content for your personal YouTube Channel.

YouTube copyright music

Now that you have a better understanding of copyright, we’ll look at what can happen if you use copyright songs and music in films without permission.


Using Copyrighted Music On YouTube

If you use copyrighted music in videos on YouTube without the rights, the owner of the music can claim the uploaded content. When it comes to copyright music on YouTube, there are three actions for the claimant to choose from:

  • Block – blocks the content from being seen or heard
  • Track – lets the claimant track viewer activity
  • Monetize – lets the claimant run adverts against the video and generate revenue

To find videos that breach copyright, YouTube uses a powerful algorithm called Content ID. It scans videos for copyrighted material. The Content ID database contains over 50 million reference files of copyrighted work. The algorithm searches videos for songs in its database and if it finds a match, your video could be removed, tracked, or monetized.

Using Copyrighted Music Beyond YouTube

Using copyrighted music on Youtube is one thing, but when it comes to breaching copyright outside of the platform, you’re open to far greater risks and penalties. Copyright owners can take you to court and demand you pay up for using their music without permission.

The maximum you could have to pay out is a huge $150,000 per track. That’s not including all the legal fees you’d be liable to pay in the event of getting a claim against you.

Committing copyright infringement can also result in jail time – it’s just not worth it. Especially when you can access a royalty-free, high-quality music catalogue that offers full protection at the touch of a button.

public domain music

Yes, there are, but only a few. Fair use and public domain music fall in this category.


Public Domain Music

Public domain music is music to which no exclusive intellectual property rights apply. You can use this music freely without having to worry about getting a claim. There are several ways that a piece of music can be classed as public domain music. Usually, it’s when all the rights to the music have expired.

For that reason, public domain music is often older compositions. The original version of ‘Rockin Robin’ – written by Leon Rene and recorded by the American singer Bobby Day in 1958 – is public domain music. The Michael Jackson version, however, is still subject to copyright.

Fair Use

Fair use means a piece of music is exempt from copyright protection in certain circumstances. For example, sometimes you can use copyright songs for educational purposes or in news reporting. You can also get away without having permission to use music if it falls under incidental use. Say, if you’re filming a documentary and there’s a song playing in the background.

However, fair use is subjective and is usually decided on a case-by-case basis. And remember, if you’re creating a film for commercial purposes or a business, it’s likely that you will need a music license.

music in films

The easiest way to ensure your music in films is covered is to subscribe to a royalty-free music catalogue. This way you avoid music copyright issues altogether. At Epidemic Sound, the copyright songs included are covered by a direct license so you can use the music in films, on YouTube, across social media, and however else you like.

Epidemic Sound offers filmmakers:

  • Music that’s both legally and financially cleared for all platforms worldwide
  • Subscriptions with all rights included – synchronisation rights, mechanical rights and public performance rights
  • A direct music license so you don’t have to worry about paying additional fees or royalties.

What’s more, subscriptions are tailored to suit specific needs. For filmmakers and those creating films for commercial purposes, subscriptions not only cover content on your personal channels, but clear all the songs you want to use in content for agencies, and companies too.

Epidemic Sound removes the hassle and risk of copyright songs for you and your clients. After all, when it comes to music copyright and using copyright music on YouTube, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

To sum up, ensuring you have permission to use music in your films is vital. After all, there’s no point creating incredible content if it’s going to end up getting pulled down. Or worse, end up costing you excessive amounts of money.

When it comes to using music in films that you plan to show publicly, make sure you do your research. Pleading ignorance is unlikely to protect you if you end up getting caught by the music owner. Always remember to keep up to date with the rules around copyright and using music. This is particularly important when it comes to social media platforms as the rules can vary and change from time to time, as can the penalties.

Alternatively, choose a music provider that you trust. They’ll keep ahead of changing rules for you, so you don’t have to worry! 👍


Filmmaking Tips, Music, Post Production Guides