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Tuesday Tuts: Music Licensing – Copyright and Conscience

In this digital age, it’s so easy to share, copy, use, and create content, that sometimes we don’t think twice about it. This has led to an issue which Jasmine Star recently brought up, but which I think deserves a more in-depth discussion.

The issue is music licensing and copyright as relevant to videos and slideshows, and it can get a little confusing at times. Hopefully I can help sort it out for you, and provide some helpful solutions.

Disclaimer: What I prescribe in this post is what I have decided – after years of working in media creation – is best and right for me, and best fits my understanding of current laws and guidelines, as well as my own conscience. I am not a lawyer, but I have tried to gather the most accurate facts I can. I am trying to provide helpful information and to explain my own methods, not to tell you what to do. I will not under any circumstances be sending the international music police after you. :)

Let’s start by getting one thing straight: Giving credit is not the same thing as having permission.

Synch Rights

If you want to use a music track as part of an audio-visual work like a video or slideshow, you must obtain synchronization rights. These are not automatically granted to you when you purchase a CD or digital music file. Synch rights are licensed by the music publisher (source: ASCAP), and must be obtained from them.

Fair Use

Fair use often comes up in these discussions, and it does provide a bit of a grey area, but not as much as you might think. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, there are 4 guidelines that determine whether something is Fair Use:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes (is it for a business, or for education/critique?)
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work (are you making a major motion picture, or a video of your cat?)
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole (how much of the song are you using?)
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work (is your use of this song going to harm the artist in any way by creating confusion or affecting sales?)

A lot of people get hung up on numbers 3 and 4, but I think most of us can stop right there at number 1. If photography is your business, then syncing a song with your photographs and putting it on your business website is probably commercial use. Of course, this is less serious if it’s for an unpaid project, and much more serious if you’re selling the slideshow and essentially making profit on someone else’s work – still some gray – but that’s where I come down on this issue.

Creative Commons

Copyright has gotten infinitely more complicated – and in some cases, less sensible – in the digital age. Enter Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization with the mission to help artists share their work more freely. If an artist wishes to license their work under Creative Commons, there are a few options:

Share Alike is an interesting one – if you use a track licensed as “Share Alike,” you are obligated to then provide a CC license on the work you create. It may seem scary at first, but think of the possibilities when artists all share and remix each others’ work!

The Creative Commons web site offers some tools to help find licensed content. There are a number of other great CC resources out there, which I’ll get to next week.

Some other web services are teaming up with Creative Commons to foster collaboration among artists. If you upload your content to Flickr or Vimeo, you have the option to assign a Creative Commons license to it.

Licensing Services/Licensing Via Artist or Publisher

This is by far the safest and most respectful way to license music for your own works! Even if you’re using a Creative Commons track, it’s polite to contact the artist – and great networking as well. There are a lot of excellent music licensing services out there… which I’ll get into next week! ;)

I will say that I sometimes find it surprising how little thought photographers give to music rights when they themselves expect others to respect copyright and proper usage of their photographs. I don’t believe this is done with malicious intent – just that many don’t stop to think about it. Think of how you would feel (maybe how you have felt) if you stumbled upon a website that used one of your photos as the header, without asking your permission and with no credit given. This is why I have decided:

My first and highest responsibility is to respect and honor the works and rights of my fellow artists.

I hope that we’re coming to a point in this digital age when information and art can be shared more freely. I hope that more artists get on board with Creative Commons and other programs that foster this sort of sharing. It’s up to us to create a respectful community of artists!

Any questions? Have you ever run into difficulty with music licensing, or with others using your work? Please come back next Tuesday for a list of great music licensing resources!

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AshleyJune 14, 2011 - 4:39 pm

I love that you’re putting this information out there and I totally agree that artists should respect each other. I just wish that licensing certain songs wasn’t so dang expensive! Thank heaven for Peter Bradley Adams (:

[...] now that we’ve talked about why it’s important to license music for your website, slideshows, videos, and other business uses, let’s get on to the fun bit: [...]

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