July 22, 2021

Music Licensing 101

Different Types of Copyright Licenses

For those wondering how to get a license to use copyright music, the path forward can be somewhat mystifying. To help, we've created a quick guide to music copyrights.

What is a copyright law

A copyright is a set of rights that copyright owners possess. This gives them copyright protection over their artistic work that allows them to prevent others from using it. In order to use a copyright, you generally need to seek permission from the copyright owner and pay a music license fee.

A copyright owner may assign control of certain parts of its artistic work to others. Sometimes a copyright owner may assign all the rights of their musical work over to another party. Yet other times, they may choose to retain certain controls over the artistic work.

This would mean that when you want to license an artistic work, you may have to get the green light from multiple parties.

Why Songs Have Two Copyrights: Composition Copyrights Vs. Sound Recording Copyrights

A song is in fact two separate artistic works:

  1. A Composition. When you compose an original combination of melody, harmony, and often words, you are creating a musical composition. These are created by composers and songwriters.
  2. A Sound Recording. When you create a recording of a composition, you are creating a new artistic work. This new work implements the underlying composition into a new fixed form.

For example, "Yesterday" by The Beetles is a single composition for which there are over 2,200 separate sound recordings. Each of those sound recordings is a cover of the composition and each has its own unique sound recording copyright.

Music Licensing for Businesses: What is a Music License

A license is when a copyright owner provides an agreement to someone who wants to use their music.

Interestingly there are some cases where you dont need a license to use an artistic work, such as in news reporting or parody. But outside these special circumstances, to legally use copyrighted music you will need to acquire a license.

What is the Music Industry: The Main Parties in the Industry

To explain how the music industry works would take more than one blog post! But to start, you should know that there are broadly four groups that can administer licenses.

Music Publishers

A music publisher is an organization that controls and administers the copyrights of compositions created by songwriters and composers.

Record Companies

A record label is an organization that facilitates the creation of sound recordings. The technical expertise of creating the sound recording is typically handled by audio technicians on behalf of the record company. However, it is the record company that ultimately owns the sound recording copyright.

Collecting Societies

Collecting societies don't own any artistic works themselves. Instead, they simply administer licenses for them on behalf of copyright owners (i.e. publishers, record companies, and artists) who've assigned partial control of their artistic work to the collecting society.

Collecting societies specialize in issuing 'blanket licenses'. These are licenses that other parties may acquire to license all of the artistic works within a collecting society's catalogue simultaneously. Radio stations, for example, rely heavily on the blanket licenses of collecting societies to play a wide variety of copyright music on their stations.


Artists may retain some control of their artistic works even if they've assigned some control to other parties. A publisher would still have to ask Paul Mccartney for permission to license "Yesterday" by The Beatles to someone.

Different Types of Copyright Licenses

Finally, when you're considering how to use licensed music, it's worth knowing that there are five main categories of usage.

Mechanical Rights

Mechanical Rights cover the right to distribute physical (or digital) copies of a composition or sound recording. To use these rights, one must acquire a mechanical license for the copyright(s) you're using.

Performing Rights

Performing rights cover the right to create a public (or digital) performance involving a composition or sound recording copyright. To use these rights, one must acquire a public performance license for the artistic work(s) you're using.

Synchronization Rights

These are more commonly called 'Sync Rights'. These rights cover the right to create a video that includes the use of a composition or sound recording copyright. A sync license is required to use a composition, and a "master use license" is required to use a sound recording. However, they are very similar licenses that accomplish the same goal.

Grand Rights

Grand rights are the right to perform copyrighted music within the context of new dramatic work. More simply put, grand rights cover the right to use an existing artistic work to synthesize a new artistic work. For example, say you wanted to use the Beatles track "Yesterday" as the basis for a new musical.

Your musical would be an entirely new, stand-alone artistic work. But to create this new work, you would first require the grand rights to "Yesterday". Only then would you be able to synthesize your new work.

Small Rights

Small Rights cover the right to feature (but not perform) copyrighted music within the context of a new dramatic work. More simply put, small rights cover the right to use a copyright to augment an artistic work. Generally, this type of usage falls under two categories of use:

  1. Interpolated Music: Using music so that it "exists" and is audible to characters within your artistic work's dramatic world (i.e. music that characters hear and comment on during a scene).
  2. Incidental Music: Using music within your artistic work's dramatic world. In this type of usage, the copyright music isn't audible to characters within your artistic work's dramatic world (e.g. background music in-between scene changes).

Until Next Time

In the future, we'll be writing more in-depth blogs on some of these topics. If there are any topics in particular you want us to write up, get in touch and let us know!

Written by Drake Deaton
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