Staying in Sync with Rights Owners: How to Clear Music for TV and Film

Are you creating a video, movie, commercial or video game? Have you ever wondered how to legally include music in your work? Here’s how you can do this.

To avoid stealing, or violating a musician’s copyright, you can obtain a license.

There are two copyrights in a song: (1) the master (or actual sound recording); and (2) the composition (underlying music and lyrics). It may be helpful to think of the master as related to the artist and the composition as related to the songwriter(s) and composer(s). In order to include a song in your visual work, you must “clear,” (or obtain) both rights through what’s known as a “master use license” and a “synchronization license,” which will most likely involve paying each of the owners a negotiated fee.

Clearing the Master.

A “master use license” gives you the right to use a specific recording of a song. If you are trying to use a song by an artist signed to a major record label, it is likely that the company owns the master. In that case, the artist’s record label may be the best place to start. If the artist is independent (not signed to a label), it is likely that the artist owns the rights to the master. The best person to contact would then either be the artist or his/her manager. If the cost to license the original recording is too expensive, purchasing the right to use a cover by another artist may be a cheaper alternative.

Clearing the Composition.

A “synchronization license” gives you the right to use the underlying music and lyrics of a song in your creative project. It must be obtained from the owner of the composition of the music. How do you find the songwriter and other composers of a particular song? Performing rights organizations (“PROs”) (large companies that collect public performance royalties for songwriters) have public records that provide information, such as the individual songwriters, publishers and performers of a particular song. Begin your search at the databases of the three largest PROs: ASCAP, BMI and SESAC.

Often, music publishers—instead of songwriters themselves—have the right to license a work’s underlying composition. Songwriters and composers typically “assign” the right to their composition to a publisher. If you can’t find information about the publisher on a PRO database, contact the artist’s manager to find out who owns the rights to the composition.

For example, let’s say you would like to license the use of Metallica’s song “Enter Sandman.” First, look up the artist’s record label to find who owns the master. With a quick Google search, you’ll discover that it’s currently Elektra, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group. Next, search the PRO databases to locate the publishing company that controls the composition rights. After searching through ASCAP’s database, you’ll see that the current publisher of the song is Creeping Death Music. After you’ve found the all owners of the rights to the song, you can negotiate the licenses so you can legally use the music.