Understanding Music Licenses

Whether you just signed a deal with a publisher or label, want to record and release a cover song, or plan on monetizing your music in any other manner (e.g., through its lyrics and viral YouTube videos), you need to understand how licenses work.

On a rudimentary level, licenses grant another party the permission to use your music in a specific way. A few common examples include when a production company wants to sync your song in a film, when a digital service provider like Apple Music wants to stream your back catalog, and when a record label wants to press an LP featuring your songs.  

In the following article, we will cover what a license is, who needs to license music, the two types of rights related to a song, and how each of them is licensed; the six types of licenses that exist in the music industry; how to find who to request a license from; and how to collect royalties from your licenses. 

What Is a Music License?

music license is the legal permission to use someone else’s composition, lyrics, or musical recording, typically for commercial use. In countries with a copyright system, copyright ownership grants you the rights to use and distribute your music as you see fit, and to protect your work from any unapproved copies, publications, or uses. 

Your publisher will also need permission to license your music as part of a film, TV, or ad placement (a.k.a. a sync license), or to grant another artist the right to record it (a first-use or mechanical license). Like any other legal agreement, a license will contain conditions and limitations such as the duration of use, the types of media allowed, and the payment of licensing fees.

What Does a Music License Cover?

Each original piece of recorded music encompasses two different sets of rights: the rights to the composition (underlying melody and lyrics), and the rights to the original recording itself. While the rights to a composition belong to the songwriters and their publishers, the original recording’s rights may belong to a record label, distributor, or the musician, depending on the situation.

If you write and record your own material, then you’ll most likely have complete ownership of these two sets of rights. If you’ve started expanding your team, you may share your composition rights with your publisher or publishing administrator, and your label will generally control all or some of the rights to your recordings. (If you are self-distributed, you will generally control your recording rights, but you may share them with your distributor.) 

Who Needs a License?

While there are often multiple original recordings of any song, there is only one composition, and one rightsholder for that composition. Every artist that wishes to record the song will have to license it from the songwriters and publishers. And each time the composition is performed, it will require a license as well.

In other words, if you wish to use a composition or track in any way, you’ll need a license. That goes for such forms as selling, recording, performing, syncing, playing on the radio, and uploading to music streaming platforms.

What Are the Types of Music Licenses?

There are six types of music licenses. Each of them will generate separate royalties for the songwriter, publisher, and label, unless they’re under the umbrella of a wider license, like a blanket license

  • mechanical license (a.k.a. reproduction license) allows for the reproduction or distribution of a track through physical or digital copies (CDs, vinyl, downloads, streaming platforms, etc.). 

  • Two different types of sync licenses — one for the recording and one for the composition, allowing their use in an audiovisual project (TV shows, movies, DVDs, video games, ads for TV or YouTube, etc.). 

  • master license allows a music track to be used in an audiovisual medium. 

  • public performance license allows a music track to be used in public broadcasting (concerts, radio, TV, speakers inside a store, etc).

  • print rights license allows the lyrics or composition sheet of a song to be reproduced, written, or printed. 

  • theatrical license allows a composition to be performed in a play or musical.

Requesting and Receiving a License

If you cover a song live and plan on releasing it to streaming services, you do not need a separate license. It should already be sorted through a blanket license. If you want to release a cover song to physical formats or download services, you need a mechanical license that is compulsory in the U.S. and based on a set rate. The rate in other territories may fluctuate and not be compulsory.

If you want to sample a track, you will need to license both the composition and the original recording. In that case, you first need to identify all the parties that own the rights to the song and track — generally both the songwriter and their publisher — so you can clear the sample.

There are cases in which a license is not necessary. For example, when a copyright term reaches its expiration date or the song enters the public domain, it can be used by anyone regardless of permission or payment of any fee. The expiration date for songs can vary according to your country’s law.

It’s important to know that the expiration date for compositions and recordings is not the same. It’s possible that a song is in the public domain, yet one of its recordings is not. This means you can perform the song without buying a license, but you will need the license if you want to sample or reproduce the original recordings in any way.

Collecting Royalties From Your Licenses

As you’ve learned so far, each aspect of your song (the composition and the recording) will require different types of licenses for different uses, and each license is a potential source of money or royalties.