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Music Copyright

Use this guide to explore music copyright information and resources.

What Is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U. S. Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works.

Copyright applies to nearly all intellectual and creative works, including, but not limited to: books, journals, magazines, photographs, art, music, sound recordings, computer programs, websites, movies, dance choreography, architecture, blog postings, images you post online and more.

Copyright May Vary

Different countries have passed different laws regarding copyright and copyrighted content. Because of this, be sure that if you use music or resources from international artists that you look at the copyright laws in that particular region.

Copyright for Audio Recordings

Audio recordings have two copyrights that one must consider: one for the music that is recorded and one for the recording itself.  While a symphony composed in 1910 is no longer protected by copyright, a recording of it made in 2010 still is.  In fact, EVERY audio recording in the United States is currently protected by copyright.  

In 1976, the federal government assigned a life-plus-70-years copyright term to all audio recordings made after February 15, 1972, and set the copyright for all pre-1972 recordings to expire in 2067.

Do I Need to Obtain Performance Rights?


Yes ...


If the screening is open to the public, such as showing to the community 

If the screening is in a public space where access is not restricted, such as in a public location

If persons attending are outside the normal circle of family and acquaintances, such as a club or organization, or showing a film for class but inviting others to attend

If privately viewing the film in your room with friends

If an instructor is showing the film to registered students in the course of teaching in the classroom 

If the library was purchased with public performance rights included

If copyright permission is obtained

How to Obtain Permission

  1. Examine the label copy for the song and get the names of the songwriters. You can also frequently get songwriter information at the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers ( or BMI (
  2. Research links to ASCAP and/or BMI and enter the song title or artist name. You may find that there are many songs with the same title, but using the writers will help you zero in on your title.
  3. ASCAP and BMI will provide information on the publisher owning the song. Copy the information for the publisher.
  4. Prepare a brief letter or fax (1 to 1 ½ pages maximum) to the publisher - be sure to say Independent Film Request or Low Budget Film at the top of the letter. Reference the title of the song and songwriters, then the name of your production. Tell them briefly about the production how the song fits in, as well as: 
    1. The timing or duration of the song; and the visuals accompanying the song;
    2. Where your production will be seen and for how long (1-time, 1 year, etc)
    3. The titles of other songs you plan to use, particularly if you have already gotten permission.
    4. If you have no budget for clearance, say so in your letter. However, publishers will often give priority to requests that offer a token fee ($25.00 to $100.00 per song) because it shows respect for the value of the copyright.
    5. Provide the publisher with an address, phone fax or e-mail so they can reply quickly.
    6. Remember, student requests will only be considered as such if they remain in the realm of the school, or school-related exhibitions. Productions for sale are NOT student films.
    7. Fax or mail your request to the publisher. Wait at least 10 days before following up.

A few things to keep in mind:

  1. Music belongs to the publishers and labels and they have no obligation to give you permission, or even respond to your request (although most do).
  2. If someone doesn't respond, it doesn't mean you've been given permission. 
  3. In most cases, you cannot change a song's lyrics for use in production without permission. In other words, you can't clear the melody and substitute your own words with the publisher's OK.
  4. Permissions take time (especially those being sought for free). Be sure you allow at least a few weeks for copyright owners to respond.
  5. Finally, only the owners of the music copyrights you are seeking can grant you a license. Receipt of this reply does not in any way constitute a clearance or agreement by our firm to represent you in getting rights for this music use.