Skip to Main Content

University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Music Copyright

This guide will point you toward information and resources to help navigate the complex world of music copyright.

Basics of Licensing

Securing rights should not be your first step. When solving a copyright problem, it's best to follow the steps outlined on this guide's Using Other People's Work page. If the work is indeed protected by copyright and there are no exceptions, you must seek permission to use the work.

Permission to use the work can be acquired in the form of a license. Licenses are permissions that copyright holders can grant to users that allow for uses of the material under certain circumstances. When licenses are granted, the copyright holder contracts away some (or all) of their copyright privileges. For example, if Jordan writes a journal article but they assign their copyright entirely to the journal publisher, then Jordan no longer has any right to share their article either publicly or privately without the permission of the journal publisher.

Additionally, even if you might otherwise have a specific right to use an item (i.e., a face-to-face teaching exception), licensing may prevent you from using it if it comes from a particular source. For example, when you set up a Netflix account, you agree (in a click-through license) to use your account for personal use only. Thus, many experts agree that a teacher generally cannot show Netflix content in class because they would be violating the license.

When it comes to music, there are many different types of licenses depending on the circumstances. Use the tabs below to explore the various licenses available for music. If you are unsure of which license your use requires, contact a professional for assistance.

Types of Licenses

A Creative Commons license allows copyright holders to register their works so that they release some permissions to any users who would like to use their work. You do not need permission from the copyright holder to use the work if it is registered under a Creative Commons license, but it is important that you follow the specific guidelines outlined in the license. It is also important to note that CC licenses are irrevocable, so you should be sure that the license you select is the one that best suits your needs.

Directly from the Creative Commons website:

To apply a Creative Commons License to your content, simply mark the work with the specific CC license you choose. This can be as simple as stating the license you have in a copyright notice, or as complex as embedding the information on your website using HTML code. The Creative Commons website strongly recommends including a link to the applicable license as well.

For more information about Creative Commons Licenses, see the following resources:

A public performance license allows you to publicly perform a nondramatic work that is not your own, including both recordings and live performances. This is an agreement between the copyright holder and the user which allows the user to perform the work in a public place. You can obtain these rights through one of the major performing rights organizations (PROs):

PROs provide blanket licenses to venues such as bars, concert halls, and even universities that allow them to publicly perform large catalogs of copyrighted works. They then collect the fees for these blanket licenses (as well as for individually licensed public performances) and distribute those royalties to songwriters, publishers, performers, and record labels. In most cases, venues and platforms will have public performance licenses in place.

The process to affiliate yourself with a PRO varies depending on the PRO you choose. However, this generally involves visiting their website, providing some information about yourself and your work, answering questions about any past affiliations, and signing a contract.

For more information about public performance licenses and PROs, see the following resources:

A grand rights license allows you to perform a dramatic work such as (but not limited to) part of an opera, oratorio, ballet, or musical. As a general rule of thumb, dramatic works usually involve pieces that are used within a larger work to tell a story, but it can be difficult to distinguish between dramatic and nondramatic works and it is best to consult an expert if you are unsure.

Grand rights are required for fully staged performances of any copyrighted dramatic work. For example, if you are singing one aria from an opera without costuming, props, sets, etc., you would likely be covered by a Public Performance License. However, if you are performing the same aria as a full performance that includes all of the makings of a dramatic work, you must seek out a grand rights license. Recording staged performances can also be negotiated when securing these rights.

Grand rights can be negotiated through the copyright owner or their publisher. Performing rights organizations cannot issue grand rights licenses.

If you are the copyright owner or publisher, you can negotiate the price and terms of the grand rights license you offer through contracts.

For more information about grand rights licenses, see the following resources:

A mechanical license allows you to make and distribute a recording of someone else's work if you have not already reached an agreement with the publisher of the work. This is often thought of as a “cover license” because artists who generally record original music only need this license if they are covering another artist’s song.

Mechanical rights are required in all cases of recording, regardless of if you intend to sell copies of what you create. There are three ways to secure mechanical licenses:

  • If you are the first artist to record a musical work, you will need a license directly from the copyright holder to release a recording in any format.
  • If you are not the first artist releasing a recording of a musical work and are releasing music on physical formats, you can arrange for this license through the Harry Fox Agency, which represents nearly 50,000 affiliated publishers and licenses more than 2,500 record labels.
  • If you are not selling physical copies and are only distributing the sound recording for digital download or streaming, you may be covered if the platform already has a license from the Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC). Conveniently, The MLC publicly posts the list of sites that have secured licenses with them.

If you are the copyright owner or publisher, you can negotiate the price and terms of the mechanical license you offer through contracts.

For more information about mechanical licenses, see the following resources:

A synchronization license is required whenever you intend to use a musical work with a visual element such as a movie, a video, or a commercial. Like mechanical licenses, synchronization licenses are only needed for musical compositions, and only the composers and publishers receive the royalties. However, these two licenses differ in that synchronization licenses involve a visual element.

To acquire a synchronization license, you must contact the work's copyright owner directly and reach an agreement. You can also purchase music that is already licensed for use in visual materials through websites such as:

If you are the copyright owner or publisher, you can negotiate the price and terms of the synchronization license you offer through contracts.​

For more information about synchronization licenses, see the following resources: