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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Copyright Resources for Music: Can I Use This?

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

Sources of Free and Legal Materials

Can I Use...

Are you writing a Dissertation, Book, or Journal Article and want to use someone else's work?

Using someone's text:

Using someone's Photos and Images:

  • Who owns the copyright? In some cases of photography, you will need to assess the copyright status of not only the photographer of an image but also if the image captures art or architecture that holds a separate copyright.
  • Is the image in the public domain?
  • Is the image licensed under a Creative Commons or similar license?
  • Does your use fall under fair use?
  • Do you have permission from the rights holder(s)?

Using someone's Composition:

  • Who owns the copyright? The composer may have handed over their copyrights to a publisher in exchange for royalty payments. Or, the composer of the piece may still retain all of his or her copyrights to their composition. Or, both the composer AND the publisher may hold joint ownership of this piece.
  • Is the composition in the public domain?
  • Is the composition licensed under a Creative Commons or similar license?
  • Does your use fall under fair use?
  • Do you have permission from the rights holder(s)?

What about using a facsimile of a composition?

Since a copy of a composition does not contribute any original creative content, the copyright of the composition remains with the original composer/publisher of the piece. If someone took a picture of the Mona Lisa, the photographer would not obtain copyright privileges of the Mona Lisa just because he took a picture of it. The same remains true of a facsimile of a composition.

Are you writing Music and want to use someone else's music?

Using someone's Sound Recording:

  • Copyright ownership and royalty processes for sound recordings are extremely complicated. To learn more about who owns what and how, read the "Copyright Tutorial for Musicians" at Public Knowledge.
  • If the recording is not 1) in the public domain, 2) licensed under a Creative Commons (or similar) license, or 3) fall under fair use, you must either change the scope of your use to fit under fair use, or seek permission and pay a probable licensing fee.
  • If this is a more mainstream or popular recording, you will more than likely need to seek permission from ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC

Sampling?:

  • Sampling sound recording or compositions in your own composition is risky and should be carefully considered before doing.
  • Courts have found sampling of compositions more permissible than even very small portions of sound recordings. 
  • It should almost always be advised to seek permission from the rights holder before sampling. If a license cannot be obtained, you may either not use the sample, or claim fair use.

Subject Guide

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Music and Performing Arts Library
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Subjects:Dance, Music, Theatre