Licensing Music For Films

by Goeun Son

Music is one of very important parts to consider from a legal perspective when you create a movie. (of course, music is essential as well for quality films)

I want to put my favorite song, “Game of Love” by Santana, in my film. An actor sings a song for 10 seconds, and the song itself appears as a background music in some scenes. Either way, you need a permission to use the song. Needless to say, you may want to clear all music to prevent potential copyright infringement. Simple as it may sound, you will find different licenses involving a music you need depending on how the music will be played on screen.

  1. Licensing music for video and other visual media requires two things: the Master Use License and the Synchronization license.

Master Use License

It is a very important part of the legal process for licensing a song for a film, but as a singular license its powers are limited. This license permits a specific recording of a work to be used — if it’s an original work. The license is granted by the owner of the master recording of the track. But with just the master use license, a song may not legally be used for film.

Remember that when you want to use a specific recording, that specific recording has its own copyright even though the music itself may be in the public domain (then a music itself is not under copyright protection). You must license that recording. For example, a famous song “Thriller” has not only one copyright. Each of a song “Thriller” itself written by Rod Temperton and a recorded performance of “Thriller” by Michael Jackson has a separate copyright.

Sync License

It is the second aspect of music licensing for film related public performance. Performance right is one of rights a copyright holder has. Running a movie falls under this public performance category in that a music in a film is performed for the audience present to watch the film. The sync license gives permission to use a song alongside some sort of visual media. This license must be paired with the master use license, which gives permission to use a specific recording.

  1. Licensing a Cover Song for Use in Film 

If an artist would like to cover a song for her album, she would need a mechanical license from the owner of the original work or a mechanical licensing agency. However, as far as licensing a song for film, the person wanting to license the track would need the mechanical license as well as a sync license from the owner of the original work, as well as a master use license from the owner of the cover song. This is because the mechanical license doesn’t cover any of the publishing rights, which are required to get song rights for film.

To determine who owns the rights to songs, the websites ascap.com and bmi.com are helpful.

Once you know who owns the publishing and the master, you must contact them and ask for permission to use the song. This may get complicated when there is more than one songwriter involved. If you want to clear a song, you would need approval from every song writer and on top of that you would need approval from a singer.