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Copyrighted Music In Video: Is It Legal?

Copyright law is a notoriously gray area on the Internet, and violations happen millions of times per day. Potential copyright violations can be confusing to navigate if you don’t know how the laws apply to your particular situation, especially around the issue of copyrighted music and audio in online videos.

Many times, creators don’t even realize they are violating copyright laws, which can leave them in a sticky situation should they get caught. Fortunately, through this guide, we will be here to assist you with the law and answer many common questions or concerns.

Having said this, this is a full disclaimer: this article is a means to help filmmakers and creators better understand copyright law, yet it should not be taken as concrete legal advice. When in doubt, find a good copyright attorney to run things by. Their livelihood is dedicated to the accuracy of this discussion.

Following the correct set of steps to abide by the proper regulations will help to ensure the success of your creative works and keep you from having to share any proceeds or, worse yet, face a lawsuit.

The remainder of this post will include an overview of the legal implications of using copyrighted music in your videos as well as offer some royalty-free or public domain alternatives. Beyond this, we will cover some of the biggest myths about copyright law and music usage:

Article Shortcuts (Jump To A Section)

Music Copyright 101: What Audio Are You Allowed To Use?

When Is It Okay To Use Another Creator's Music In Your Video?

Notable Sites For Finding Quality Royalty-Free Music

What's The Difference Between Sharing & Stealing?

Do Cover Versions Of A Song Still Violate Copyright?

What Happens If I Use Copyrighted Work In A Video Without Permission?

How YouTube Determines A Violation Using ContentID

What Defines ‘Fair Use' & How Does It Benefit Me?

Debunking The Biggest Myths About Copyrighted Music

Music Copyright 101: What Audio Are You Allowed To Use?

The easiest way to avoid a potential copyright violation is to create 100% original content. However, not everyone is musically inclined, so the need to include an audio track or sound effect within your video is often necessary. 

One of the most important question to ask yourself before using someone else's audio works is:

“Am I inhibiting the original creator's ability to earn money from this audio track or sound effect?”

The answer to this question plays a significant factor in whether you should go through with it. The truth of the matter is it doesn't matter whether the creator is monetizing his works or not. You legally cannot inhibit their ability to monetize their work.

Want an example? Say you wanted to include the whole track “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars as the background track within your video montage. 

While this would be a nice benefit on your end yet someone could rip this song directly from your video. This would then bypass the need to purchase the full version of Uptown Funk for future listening, thus hindering Bruno's business. 

In this scenario, using his song would result in your video getting flagged for a copyright violation and can lead to things like demonetization, removal of audio, removal of the entire video, or even a potential lawsuit.

If you are very new to creating video content and want to get a better understanding of the basics behind copyright and its ties to music, video footage, and images then check out this YouTube overview video embedded below to catch up with the modern practices and legalities:

When Is It Okay To Use Another Creator's Music In Your Video?

Copyright is a complicated topic, so if you want to use music that was created by someone else, you'll need to understand the legal implications of doing so. Getting the proper permission to use a song or sound effect will depend on whether or not the creator requires a license or not: 

  1. The only time you will NOT need to secure special permission to use someone else's audio track or sound effect is when the work is found in the public domain. The Public Domain Information Project is a part of US copyright law. Public domain is the concept that some music tracks are available for use without violation of copyright if the rights expired (any song or musical work published in 1922 or earlier), the author released the work into the public domain, or there were never any copyrights. Many people think the “happy birthday” song falls under Public Domain. However, it does not, so DO NOT use it!
  2. If the particular audio work you want to use is NOT found in the public domain, you WILL need to obtain a valid license to use it without any potential repercussions. The more formal and “legal” the license, the more protected you will be while using it. Many artists or producers will offer two licenses: one for the song itself and another for the recording, so in some cases, you may need to obtain two licenses.

Now we come to royalty-free music, which is “free” to use without paying the original creator any royalties throughout usage. However, it is NOT part of the public domain. 

Permission to use royalty-free recordings is much easier to obtain due to the nature of the licensing. A common misconception is that royalty-free means free is rarely the case. Instead of having to forfeit any proceeds or revenue earned from using a copyrighted song or audio element within your video, you instead dish out a more affordable up-front fee to the original creator in exchange for permission to use their work in your video content.

A great example of this is SoundStripe, which is one of our favorite services for licensing royalty-free music. This particular service charges you an affordable monthly or annual fee to browse, download, and use hundreds of royalty-free songs that are high-quality across all sorts of moods, BPMs, and instruments.

SoundStripe is our top choice for their excellent pricing, a wide selection of audio content, a sleek user interface, and simple to understand licensing terms. Their license includes both personal and commercial usage on all tracks without having to jump through any hoops or purchase an additional (usually costly) commercial license.

Notable Sites For Finding Quality Royalty-Free Music

If you are serious about your creative endeavors and want to minimize the legal risks or using copyrighted tracks within your video content, then royalty-free music is going to be your best best.

While different than the public domain, buying audio under a royalty-free license will all you to obtain legal usage while still maintaining the legal rights to the original creator. A nice perk for the original artists who offer royalty-free audio licensing is added revenue from licensing out their content as well as potential opportunities that come with the video creator's audience exposure to their music.

There are many different resources for finding royalty-free music, but here are some notable favorites:

SoundStripe Homepage

As I stated earlier, royalty-free does not mean it is free. It is going to cost you some amount of money 99% of the time. However, this I license is going to be much cheaper to pay up-front than having to pay royalties over time or the potential risk of being subject to massive copyright lawsuits.

What's The Difference Between Sharing & Stealing?

There is a fine line drawn between the concept of sharing someone else's music versus stealing their audio for your benefit. Here's an overview of each situation in more detail:

  • Legal sharing would be when you take a particular artist's song and share their link to it on your Facebook or Twitter page. Since you are sharing their work in its original form from the owner's source of legal distribution, you are not breaking any copyright law and helping the artist.
  • Stealing occurs should you download that same song and upload it to your own YouTube video or Soundcloud account. Taking someone else's work away from their native accounts and distributing it to others without the artist having the ability to monetize their work. Doing this is a clear violation of copyright law, and you can be held legally liable.

Do Cover Versions Of A Song Still Violate Copyright?

There is some circumstantial grey area here, but in most cases, the answer is yes. A cover song at its core is an artistic interpretation of someone else's work, which technically still is a form of infringement. However, here are a few ways to help avoid copyright violations via a cover:

  • Make your cover transformative with some originality to it. This means you perform the song in a creative way that is virtually unrecognizable as the original version.
  • Use the YouTube copyright search feature before posting a cover to check the various audio terms associated with it. Researching this ahead of time can save you a lot of hassles and headaches later on.
  • Use a royalty-free track that you have legally licensed from the various services available.
  • Explore the available options via the YouTube Audio Library

What Happens If I Use A Copyrighted Work Without Permission?

In the best-case scenario, nothing will happen, yet you'll always subject to some serious risks associated with violating copyright. A significant determining factor of risk is whether you are making money through the use of copyrighted work. This usually means the more substantial the traction your video could receive (views, monetization, sponsorship, shares, etc.), the more likely you are to get caught and punished.

Here are the three most likely consequences of copyright infringement on YouTube:

  • You'll get a copyright strike, which is a permanent mark on your channel, which tells the service you have violated the law and used someone else's work without a proper license. Get three of these violations throughout the life of your channel, account, and all your videos will be deleted.
  • Your video's audio may be muted for any offending videos that use the copyrighted material.
  • Your video may be demonetized, or monetization may be added to compensate the original artist's work adequately.
  • You could be sued by the original owner of the work that is being unlawfully used.

There is a handy tool that YouTube offers within its audio library that gives creators a better idea of the action that the site will take against a future video that uses copyrighted music:
YouTube Copyright Music Check - Elvis

How YouTube Determines A Violation Using ContentID

If you aren't already familiar with ContentID, it is a copyright tracking system that utilizes a sophisticated algorithm to automatically flag potential user infringements. If your uploaded content is triggered by this algorithm, you'll receive an account notice with a chance to dispute the notification. Your content can be demonetized or blocked temporarily until the appeal has been looked at. 

In some cases, YouTubers are creating what they think is original content for uploading to the platform as their videos contain stock audio from an editing program or through a Creative Commons license. However, in these cases, most of the time, you'll only be able to use these audio elements for personal use and do not have the legal right to use in online, monetized methods.

As a general rule of thumb, always check the usage rights before you post content that contains audio from a third-party source. It is better to find out ahead of time even if it ruins your content plan versus doing all the work and having it taken down or worse.

Can My Content Still Get Flagged With A Proper Royalty Free License?

It is a pain to deal with a copyright claim after you have already paid for a license to use a song or piece of audio content. The truth is that many of these royalty-free sites license their music from the original composer/artist. This requires them to use automated systems to identify piracy or unlicensed use.

The bad news is that you could still be flagged for copyright music violations on your YouTube channel, Instagram, or Facebook. The good news is most of these services have dedicated pages on their sites to submit a counterclaim.

The matter is usually sorted out within 48 hours. We've had only one claim in the past when using these services in our YouTube videos, and it was resolved in under a day:

YouTube Music Copyright Claim

What Is Considered Fair Use? How Does It Benefit Me?

Similar to Public Domain, “fair use” is a legal precedent that allows content usage exceptions that supersede copyright law under “fair” conditions. Most of the guidelines around fair use are found under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (aka DMCA). Fair use has a vast grey area when it comes to copyright infringement. If a content owner thinks that your use of their work doesn't fall under fair use, it can still result in a lengthy and expensive legal battle to prove that it does.

According to Section 107 of the DMCA, this is the legal description as to what constitutes fair use:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

Debunking The Biggest Myths About Copyrighted Music

Now that we've covered most of the important topics when it comes to copyrighted music in video content, let's dissect some of the biggest myths on the subject. Hopefully, this section will clear up any confusion or questions and prevent any wrong-doing in the future:

Myth #1: Nobody has contacted me, so I must not have violated any copyright.

While this sounds like a reasonable assumption, it isn't. The Internet is an insanely large environment, and just because an original creator hasn't stumbled upon your unlicensed usage doesn't mean that they won't in the future or that you are using it legally. The longer and more you benefit from using someone else's unlicensed audio within your content, the harsher the penalty will be if you get caught.

Myth #2: I'm just posting a personal or fan video, so I shouldn't have to worry about copyright.

In some cases, this may be true if you are posting a non-monetized video that the original artist allows within their terms of use. However, most of the time, it is still going to be a direct copyright violation. In some cases, “fair use” could come into play, but the hassle of trying to prove that should the artist go after you is not a fun road to go down.

One significant exception to this would be if your content could fall under a “parody,” which usually would be in the form of comedy or criticism. US copyright laws heavily protect parody, and that is why you see many parody style videos using mainstream audio on YouTube.

Myth #3: I'm not monetizing my video or using ads, so it's automatically fair use.

Again, it is up to the copyright holder's wishes as to whether you can use their creative works in this manner. Some may allow it, but most won't. Even if it is not monetized, you are still taking away from the potential for that creator to solely distribute their work with their own choice of monetization.

Using someone else's audio content without monetization in most cases will result in a lesser punishment should you be caught doing so. However, it is not an excuse or an exception to the law when it comes to whether or not you have committed copyright infringement.

Myth #4: I didn't see any copyright notices, so it must not be copyrighted.

This is a huge myth that has no merit in 99.9% of cases. The reason for this is that the US and most major countries offer immediate protection of original creations under copyright without any further action necessary. Sure, many creators wish to publicly state their copyright notices, which can help increase their chances of receiving legal damages for future violations, but it is not a requirement.

Myth #5: I found it on the internet, so it falls under the public domain.

No, this isn't the slightest bit true. In a rare case, it is possible to find a piece of audio under the public domain, yet in all other cases, this will be copyrighted material. Anything can be posted online by anyone (hence copyright infringement violations), and this does not grant inclusion into the public domain or permission to use just by being present on the Internet.

Myth #6: I gave credit to the original artist and told them I didn't intend to violate copyright.

This has no merit, and whoever started this myth had zero cares about copyright infringement. This situation is no different than you going into a convenience store, stealing a candy bar, and telling the clerk, “sorry, I don't mean to steal it.” Either way, you'll be subject to the law.

Myth #7: I am using audio licensed under Creative Commons, I can use it how I want.

While Creative Commons can be an excellent way to utilize another creator's audio works within your content, you must follow the exact terms of their CC license. Failure to abide by these terms can still result in copyright infringement and potential legal troubles.

Creative Commons licenses  have one or all of the following rules for usage:

  • Attribution – others can copy, distribute, display, perform, or remix the work if the creator's name is credited as requested by the creator.
  • No Derivative Works – others can only copy, distribute, display, or perform verbatim copies of the creator's works. This means no editing, tweaking, condensing, or remixing allowed.
  • Share-Alike: others can distribute the creator's work only under a license identical to the one the creator has chosen for their work. If you are using a Creative Commons license that requires Share-Alike along with it, you must make your resulting project able to be used under CC as well.
  • Non-Commercial – others can copy, distribute, display, perform, or remix the creator's work but only for non-commercial purposes. This means no use in advertising, sales, marketing, or anything of which the project makes you money.

Myth #8: I paid for a royalty-free license, I have the freedom to use it however I want. Similar to Creative Commons, royalty-free licensing can be a bit tricky. Depending on the source of where you purchased a royalty-free license, there could be some strict stipulations as to whether or not you can use it in specific ways, including the subject of your video. 

  • Some royalty-free license prohibits the use of their royalty-free audio in content featuring adult, death or drug use
  • Some royalty-free licenses do not offer commercial usage unless you pay for a commercial license (which is typically MUCH more expensive)
  • Some royalty-free licenses prohibit how you can distribute the video content that uses the licensed work. IE: Usage is allowed for social media or online distribution but not traditional radio, live performances, etc.
  • Some royalty-free licenses have a maximum capacity of how broad the distribution can be. Some cheaper licenses are capped at a distribution of your video's content to a limited audience (under 50K people), while others will sell the rights to more extensive or world-wide distribution for a much higher fee.

Be sure to check out the specific licensing terms of the royalty-free track you plan to purchase or service you are considering subscribing to. Our recommended provider, SoundStripe, offers unlimited usage of their entire library, including commercial except for nudity and live performances.

Final Summary

This ends our guide on the legalities of using copyrighted music in your video content. We hope you found it a helpful resource and feel free to bookmark it for future reference if you need to brush up on the restrictions of music copyright. 

Should you get to this point in the article and still find yourself with a lingering question, concern or just simply want some sort of advice on the matter of music copyright for video usage. It can be a daunting task although it is worth the hassle to find quality licensed music.

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