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The Easy Guide To Music Copyright

“A good composer does not imitate, he steals”

These words are often accredited to the great composer Igor Stravinsky.

Unfortunately, they were little consolation for more recent artists such as Vanilla Ice, The Verve, Led Zeppelin, Ray Parker Jnr or George Harrison, who all came unstuck in the world of music copyright law. Finding yourself on the wrong side of a legal judgment can be costly, so it’s important that your project is properly licensed – even if you are just placing a video on your website or YouTube.

Vanilla Ice verses David Bowie
Vanilla Ice settles out of court after sampling David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’

Using works protected by copyright in your video

Generally speaking if you want to use a specific piece of commercial music in your video or film production, you may be looking at a lengthy & expensive process in order to acquire the correct permissions.

Firstly you must determine who the copyright owner is (this can often be more than one) of the material you intend to use, contact the owner, and request the right to use the work in the territory and format you intend, and, in most cases, pay the owner a fee.  You should obtain two licenses – the synchronization license to use the composition and the master license to use the recording of that composition. Normally a good a place to start would be a PRO (Performing Rights Organisation) such as ASCAP, BMI, SESAC or PRS.

If you haven’t obtained these permissions for a track that you are currently using, then you are most probably breaking the law.

do not cross
Never use unlicensed music in a business or client video! Ever!

Completely free music?

Let’s face it, a majority of arts projects these days are on a tight budget – it would be unrealistic (and overkill) to start trying to purchase permissions directly from owners & publishers. So what other options are there? Your first instinct would probably be to look for completely free music.

You could try music already in the Public Domain. Be aware that the copyright laws vary in different countries and so does the copyright expiration time. Furthermore, even if the composition itself is in public domain, the recording may be copyrighted.  

You could also try music available under the Creative Commons License. However, there are different kinds of creative commons license, so pay attention to the details. Often you will be required to give credit, may be restricted from using the music in commercial projects, or will be obligated to share your work under the same terms.

Once you whittle down your choices, you may find that what is left offers very little in terms of choice and quality. After all, why would talented composers give away their music for free? 

Free Music
Free music is often low quality, lacking in choice, and comes with strings attached

The traditional publishing model

Music publishing has changed a lot in the last twenty years – the industry used to consist of predominantly exclusive licensing. This meant that a composer’s entire folio of published works would be represented exclusively by one publisher.

The publisher would send tapes or CDs of it’s artists’ works to the music supervisors working for the networks and production companies. The advantage being that the music supervisors could be certain where the music came from, and also it’s usage history and quality.  Production, marketing and distribution costs for the publisher represented a large investment without today’s digital recording technology and the internet.

The mere fact that a piece of music was being offered for sale to you in a reputable outlet was, in and of itself, an important assurance of quality. Unfortunately the close relationship between the risk-averse publishers, networks and PROs inevitably led to an industry that remained a closed shop for many talented composers.

A composer’s entire folio of works would often be represented exclusively by one publisher.

The digital revolution

With the advent of cheaper digital production techniques and faster internet speeds, the publishing, marketing and distribution companies were no longer such an essential part of the equation. In addition composers were able to produce the same broadcast-quality tracks in small budget studios, often based in their own homes.

Sync libraries soon started to appear online following a similar publishing model i.e. B2B exclusive libraries for music supervisors based on the PROs pricing structure (current UK PRS rates). Whilst these were appropriate for the mass-broadcast sector, they seemed eye-wateringly expensive for small to medium, low-profile placements e.g. corporate videos, internet presentations, theatre productions, educational projects etc.

Composers can now produce broadcast-quality tracks from their own home studio

The modern solution

The most effective modern solution is non-exclusive royalty-free licensing which essentially represents the democratization of the music industry. It allows music to be bought and sold at prices that suit both the composer and music purchaser. It also creates opportunities for talented composers who do not wish to be tied to one particular publisher, and facilitates multiple sales of works in their portfolio.

Non-exclusive licensing refers to the license between the music purchaser and the publisher (not the composer and publisher.) This means that the piece of music can be used for more than one project without infringing copyright.

Royalty-free music refers to a type of music licensing that allows the purchaser to pay for the music license only once and to use the music for as long as desired. ‘Royalty free’ is actually a misleading term as royalties will still be paid for television and other mass-media broadcasts, but by the network company not the music purchaser.

Where should I look?

There are a growing number of royalty-free libraries such as AudioJungle, PremiumBeat and Pond5. Their vastness can be over-whelming though. You may spend hours wading through similar sounding tracks without finding anything unique or special.

Undoubtedly Zeiler Media is one of the best, offering high-quality tracks specially written by leading professional composers. They offer some distinct advantages over their competitors;

  • All their tracks have been pre-cleared with contracts signed by their composers on file. You can be sure that the license coverage is 100% safe.
  • They are able to offer tracks at prices which most small companies with modest budgets can easily manage.
  • They offer a request service for edits or alternative versions of their tracks at no extra cost or obligation to purchase.
  • Their licensing is separated into two very simple categories: standard and premium (much easier than the PRO rate sheets.)
  • They have a fast and simple checkout – just select the track and license, then add to cart. Upon purchase your track and bespoke license will then be instantly available for download.
    fast affordable easy
    Zeiler Media – Fast, Easy and Affordable


We’ve never had it so good when it comes to music licensing; it’s now perfectly possible to use a stunning track on the most modest of budgets. What’s more, with the savings made from reduced production and distribution costs, both the music user and composer are walking away happier than ever before.

Get $20 of store credit PLUS

20% off your first license

when you register for a free account

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