U.S. copyright law guarantees copyright owners exclusive rights to their copyrighted material. These include the right to:
- Reproduce their creative work
- Distribute copies of that work
- Perform the copyrighted material in public (or through digital audio transmission, as a sound recording)
- Create a new composition derived from the original work
- Display the copyrighted work publicly
These exclusive rights aim to strike a balance between supporting the circulation of material while ensuring that copyright owners are compensated, to provide an incentive for future creative work. Copyright owners may allow others to exercise some of their rights through licensing.
How Copyright Owners Can Protect Their Work
There are two types of licensing—voluntary and statutory.
In most cases, a license is granted by a copyright owner for a fee and in accordance with a written contract stating terms and conditions. This is known as a voluntary (or direct) license. The contract should provide the copyright owner’s name, terms of the license, rights being granted and any royalties that are to be paid.
Any business or individual that wants to offer a download of a sound recording must typically obtain a license from the copyright owner, which is often a recording company. The license would include the rights and obligations of each party. A new license agreement must be created for any additional purpose that the original license doesn’t cover.
You need a voluntary license in the following cases:
- If you want to use a sound recording in an audiovisual work, you must have a synchronization license. This name indicates that the music is “synched” to the visuals, and it applies to any audio/visual presentation, such as a music video, movie, commercial, sitcom or documentary—even those that are aired online. Synchronization licenses are granted by copyright owners of sound recordings.
- Offering music videos (“audiovisual works”) for viewing or copying. These must be licensed by the video’s creator. Sometimes, the record company that produced the music in the video owns that video. A music video can be licensed for download or streaming by the copyright owner, which will be indicated after the © symbol.
- If you use a 30-second clip of a music title. While certain uses of short lengths of music are “fair use” and don’t require a license, you generally need a license to use any portion of a song. This holds true if you reproduce, distribute or perform clips of songs. Making clips available on demand is not covered by a statutory license.
- Selling a complication CD. If a company offers the ability to select songs and combine them into a single CD, they need a license that grants them permission to reproduce and distribute those music recordings.
- Offering digital music downloads. Even if these aren’t for sale, a license is required.
- Having an online jukebox. An interactive service doesn’t qualify for a statutory license. They must be granted performance licenses from the individual copyright owners. The Copyright Act defines this as a service that lets a listener select a song and create a personalized program. If copies of this program are made and stored, the service must also negotiate reproduction rights.
- Offering a performance or download to someone outside of the U.S. Any use of copyrighted music recordings outside the U.S. requires a license from the copyright owner that covers the specific territory. For international use and distribution, it is important to understand local copyright law—what the copyright owner’s rights are, and who you must contact to negotiate rights. Look for an overseas affiliate or a collecting agency.
In specific instances and as a matter of public policy, the government may determine the terms, conditions and fees for a certain class of copyright licenses. A government license may allow licensees to avoid having to undertake negotiations with individual copyright owners, for greater efficiency. These types of licenses are known as statutory (or compulsory) licenses. The fee in these cases is set by law, known as a “statutory rate.”
In the music industry, certain performances and sound recording reproductions qualify for a statutory license. The most common use of statutory licenses is for internet radio and webcasting. This includes recordings played on your car’s satellite system or on your digital cable service.
For those who aren’t familiar with this type of online program, a podcast is a digital audio file that listeners can usually either stream or download. Often, podcast hosts will include music in their podcasts.
If they do use copyrighted music in their podcasts, podcasters must ensure that they have the legal authorization (permissions) needed to incorporate this music into their program.
Through these authorizations, they must be granted rights to the sound recording (recorded version of that song) and the underlying music composition (melody and lyrics).
These authorizations may the podcaster the right to copy, distribute and digitally transmit their podcast, which will depend on whether it is available for downloading, streaming only, or both.
Although certain statutory or blanket licenses give authorizations for these rights, usually the licenses don’t provide all that is required for a podcast that uses music.
- ASCAP/BMI/SESAC License – This public performance license might cover a musical composition performance that’s embedded in the podcast when it’s being streamed, but not the streamed sound recording nor the copying or distribution (downloading) of the musical composition or sound recording.
- Statutory Webcasting or Simulcasting License – The Section 114 statutory webcasting license, which is administered by SoundExchange, does cover certain digital transmissions of sound recordings. However, this license doesn’t cover on-demand podcasts—that is, the distribution of a simulcast or webcast recording. Generally, this type of permission must be granted by the record company that originally released that sound recording.
- Licenses for Use Outside of the U.S. – Even with the required authorizations (voluntary, statutory or other) to download or stream a podcast in other jurisdictions, that does not confer the permissions needed to copy, distribute or transmit that podcast in the U.S.
Important: This information is meant to be educational and is not intended as legal advice. Please consult your counsel for advice with respect to music licensing and other legal matters.
Anti-Piracy & Copyright Resources
Visit our industry partners and learn more about copyright law and current anti-piracy efforts.
Microsoft – Learn, Verify and Buy with Confidence (how to tell if Microsoft software and hardware are genuine)
Software Publishers’ Association – a division of SIIA (Software Information & Industry Association) – Anti-Piracy FAQ
Harvard Law School Library – Free Legal Research Resources
Report Piracy or Copyright Infringement
If you have an incident of piracy or copyright infringement you need to report, you can do so through the following organizations.
The Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) Anti-Piracy Division)
File a Piracy Report
Business Software Alliance (BSA)
Report Piracy Now
Counterfeit Software Report
Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)
Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)
International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI)
Report Copyright Infringement and FAQs
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Information about Counterfeit Drugs and How to Report
“Resources & Learning: Licensing.” Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). https://www.riaa.com/resources-learning/licensing/
“Resources & Learning: Questions About Podcasts.” Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). https://www.riaa.com/resources-learning/questions-about-podcasts/