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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.

General Guidelines

In general, when considering whether or not you can use someone's work for research and/or performance, consider factors such as:

If none of these apply, you must secure rights in order to use the work.

Using Different Types of Content

When using someone else's text, consider:

  • Is the text in the public domain?

Certain works whose copyright has expired can be used without acquiring permission. See the "Public Domain" tab in "Basics of Copyright" for more information.

  • Is the text licensed under a Creative Commons or similar license?

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. See the "Creative Commons License" tab in "Licensing Works" for more information.

  • Does your use fall under fair use?

Fair use allows for the use of copyrighted materials without obtaining explicit permission from the copyright holder, though it can only be used in certain circumstances. See the "Fair Use" tab in "Basics of Copyright" for more information.

  • Do you have permission from the rights holder?

Licensing plays a very large role in copyright and must be accounted for when making decisions regarding one's use of a work. See "Licensing Works" for more information.

When using someone else's images, consider:

  • 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?

Certain works whose copyright has expired can be used without acquiring permission. See the "Public Domain" tab in "Basics of Copyright" for more information.

  • Is the image licensed under a Creative Commons or similar license?

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. See the "Creative Commons License" tab in "Licensing Works" for more information.

  • Does your use fall under fair use?

Fair use allows for the use of copyrighted materials without obtaining explicit permission from the copyright holder, though it can only be used in certain circumstances. See the "Fair Use" tab in "Basics of Copyright" for more information.

  • Do you have permission from the rights holder(s)?

Licensing plays a very large role in copyright and must be accounted for when making decisions regarding one's use of a work. See "Licensing Works" for more information.

When using someone else's composition, consider:

  • Who owns the copyright?

 It is important to remember that musical works often involve more than one 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 their 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?

Certain works whose copyright has expired can be used without acquiring permission. See the "Public Domain" tab in "Basics of Copyright" for more information.

  • Is the composition licensed under a Creative Commons or similar license?

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. See the "Creative Commons License" tab in "Licensing Works" for more information.

  • Does your use fall under fair use?

Fair use allows for the use of copyrighted materials without obtaining explicit permission from the copyright holder, though it can only be used in certain circumstances. See the "Fair Use" tab in "Basics of Copyright" for more information.

  • Do you have permission from the rights holder(s)?

Licensing plays a very large role in copyright and must be accounted for when making decisions regarding one's use of a work. See "Licensing Works" for more information.

When using a facsimile of a composition, keep in mind that 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 they took a picture of it. The same remains true of a facsimile of a composition.

When using someone else's sound recording, consider:

  • Who owns the copyright?

Copyright ownership and royalty processes for sound recordings are extremely complicated, and it is important to remember that musical works often involve more than one copyright. See Unlocking the Digital Age by Kathleen DeLaurenti and Andrea Copland for more information about audio ownership.

  • Is the recording in the public domain?

Certain works whose copyright has expired can be used without acquiring permission. See the "Public Domain" tab in "Basics of Copyright" for more information.

  • Is the recording licensed under a Creative Commons or similar license?

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. See the "Creative Commons License" tab in "Licensing Works" for more information.

  • Does your use fall under fair use?

Fair use allows for the use of copyrighted materials without obtaining explicit permission from the copyright holder, though it can only be used in certain circumstances. See the "Fair Use" tab in "Basics of Copyright" for more information.

  • Do you have permission from the rights holder(s)?

Licensing plays a very large role in copyright and must be accounted for when making decisions regarding one's use of a work. If the recording is not in the public domain, is not licensed under a Creative Commons (or similar) license, or does not fall under fair use, you must either change the scope of your use to fit under fair use or seek permission and likely pay a licensing fee. If this is a more mainstream or popular recording, you will more than likely need to seek permission from ASCAPBMI, or SESAC. See "Licensing Works" for more information.

Sampling sound recordings or compositions in your own work is risky and should be carefully considered before doing. You should almost always seek permission from the rights holder before sampling; if a license cannot be obtained, you can either not use the sample, or claim fair use.

The Free Music Archive is a great source if you need to include music in a project and want to be confident in your usage rights. All songs on the Free Music Archive are royalty-free and free to access and download.