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on May 13, 2003 at 5:54:45 pm

I'm wanting to do a simple slideshow video and have music underneath it and someone told me before I can charge money for it I need permission to use the song. Does anyone know anything about copyright laws and how I can obtain the permission to use songs in my videos?

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Michael Autery
Re: Copyright
on May 14, 2003 at 7:37:46 pm


Copyright Law 101:

Can I use popular recorded music in my videos/slideshows?

The plain, no-frills, unvarnished answer is NO, not without paying a license fee. And for those hit songs you want to use, the license fee will be absolutely staggering. Most people are very vague about this issue, even many professionals. Legally, you cannot use anyone else’s copyrighted material of any sort without permission from the copyright holder. This is true all the time, but is even more true for any usage where money changes hands. In some cases, especially with lesser-known musicians, you may get permission just for the asking. Most of the time, you have to pay a license fee, which can range from a tiny amount per copy to an astronomical figure or an outright. Music is copyrighted material at a number of levels, and there are a number of people who usually must receive a “cut” of any usage or license fees. Of course, the big chunk usually goes to a huge multinational media company, but there are also pieces which go to the composer, the arranger, the lyricist, the performers, the studio, all their agents, and any other slick character that has wormed his (or her) way between the performers and their money. Remember, not only is the composition copyrighted, the performance is copyrighted and the recording is copyrighted.

Please remember before you “lift” a piece of music illegally that many of these folk are ordinary creative schmoes trying to make a living off their art – just like you. Think how you would feel if someone stole your hard work without bothering to even ask.

So what do you do?

The first and most common solution for small producers is to use BUY-OUT MUSIC LIBRARIES. These are companies which sell you a set of CD’s of production music, complete with a license to use the music in all your productions, for a flat fee. There are some pretty horrible libraries, and some very wonderful ones. You can often find music that resembles the movie theme you wanted to use. Since a lot of movie music is actually classical music, there are several libraries which have put together “Themes of the Movies” CD sets. There’s load of pop, techno, and jazz out there, too. A good rule of thumb is to expect less than half of a music library to be actually useable for your specific needs.

Another common solution is a NEEDLE-DROP LIBRARY. This is an extensive collection, often of higher-quality and wider assortment than is typically available in buyout libraries, which you pay for on a usage basis. In the old days of actual vinyl records (we still have some needle-drop vinyl!), these collections got their name because you paid every time you “dropped the needle” on a selection. There is usually a modest setup fee, and careful reporting for each usage is essential. The “plus” side of needle-drop is that you can charge the use off to the client with a markup, rather than paying a larger fee up front. Although I rarely see smaller shops using needle-drop libraries, it’s a great cheap way to get a huge collection of high quality music.

The other method is to actually license an individual recording that you really want to use. For some uses, this can be astoundingly affordable. In others, the fee will blow your mind. Just a hint: don’t ask to use the Star Wars theme for a wedding video unless the clients have really deep pockets!

There are a couple of methods to license recorded music. The easiest, though not the cheapest, is to go through a licensing agency such as Harry Fox. As you may have gathered above, license fees get split up into many small pieces going to many people. That’s the reason for the existence of ASCAP and BMI, they keep all the vast records of who gets what tiny piece of each license fee. They also administer blanket performance licenses for clubs, DJ’s, and radio stations (and you thought they got to play all that music for free).

The other method is to go directly to the artist, assuming you can get in touch with them and they will talk to you. This will usually net you a lower fee if they are sympathetic to what you are doing (low-budget film, PSA, fundraising for a good cause).


My advice? Ignore it unless you KNOW on solid legal advice that you are smack in the middle of it. If you’re not a bone fide reporter for a news organization, or your website doesn’t end in .edu, I recommend you forget about it. I’ve heard so many junior Perry Masons expounding at length online about the Fair Use Clause, and most of them don’t know squat. Some of them know a bit (a few have actually read the act) but don’t have a realistic perspective. Remember, Disney can sue you even if you are in the right. If you’re a small business, you shouldn’t be taking risks like that. Most of the college media staff that I know – people that can legitimately make use of the act -- err on the very careful side!

How do you handle pushy clients who insist on using Disney music unlicensed? Be hard-nosed. Remember, YOU are the one who is liable, not the client. Trust me, they can’t pay you enough to make it worth being sued by Disney.


Try searching the web for buyout music libraries

Best Regards
Michael Autery DVD Product Developers Community

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