What copyright permission do musicians need?

When permission is needed from copyright owners.

It’s true.

The vast majority of copyright lawbreakers get away with it.

Like speeding while driving.

Just because SO MANY get away with it doesn’t make it right. Or legal.

So, what to do?

Below is a layman’s approach to copyright, based on being caught and fined in the past.

I am not a lawyer and the content of this article does not constitute legal advice – you should seek a professional legal expert to advise on your specific circumstances.

First, assume this:

Permission is needed to reproduce in any format work protected by copyright law.

From there, life is so much simpler.

So let’s think of some more common formats musicians might be familiar with:

  1. Printing
  2. Performing
  3. Recording
  4. Filming
  5. Broadcasting
  6. YouTube

As you dive deeper into copyright permissions and licenses, you’ll notice there are lots of terminology differences for each of these formats. Especially now with the explosion of methods to share music digitally. But, most people seem to be familiar with these five basic ideas.

So here goes…

Printing someone else’s music is a reproduction.

You need permission to do that. Any time you write down someone else’s music protected by copyright laws, you need their permission to do so. That includes arrangements, copying parts from scores, transcriptions, etc. Any form – not just notational – of physical representation of that music is a reproduction. Especially PHOTOCOPYING. Are there exceptions? Yes. But START by assuming you need permission, and then find out if your organization or venue already has that permission.

Performing someone else’s music is a reproduction.

You need permission to do that. The 50 years or so before the 21st century saw an incomprehensible boom in the amount of music, music creators and performers, so a bunch of them got together and created agencies to process copyright permissions on their behalf. That’s probably where you’ve heard about venues submitting programs to BMI, ASCAP, the PRS in the UK, and others. Venues that host performances of music need to get permission to perform copyrighted music, which is now more commonly referred to as a “Performing Rights License.” Recently the law relaxed a little to suggest that ANYONE involved in a performance of music protected by copyright can get permission in order to cover EVERYONE in that performance. Yes, performers may have their own performing rights license in case the venues they perform in do not. It’s an administrative nightmare for performers, but it’s the right and legal thing to do. It’s also why graduates of the Concert University can now apply to perform under the CU’s own performing license. Are there exceptions? Nope.

Recording someone else’s music is a reproduction.

You need permission to do that. Any audio version of a piece of music protected by copyright that is not presented live, in the moment, is a recording. Again, there are agencies like Harry Fox that coordinate these “mechanical licenses.” It doesn’t matter if it’s a compact disc, mp3, vinyl, or 8-track cassette tape – if there is an audio representation that can be played, replicated, or shared at any time in the future, it is a recording and needs permission. Are there exceptions? Nope.

Filming someone else’s music is a reproduction.

You need permission to do that. How do you film someone else’s music? The most obvious is to film a performance. And this is where most copyright lawbreakers hang out. That darling little dance recital you video taped for your neighbor’s 8 year old ballet class graduation, is probably illegal. That movie on your phone of last year’s marching band competition performance, is probably illegal. Music also appears in TV shows, movies, corporate presentations, museum info stations, and, of course, commercials. For music protected by copyright to appear alongside ANY visual format whatsoever, you need a “Synchronization License.” Now we’re getting into thicker mud – there are no central agencies that provide synch rights. You need to go to the copyright owner directly – which is usually a publisher. Are there exceptions? Nope.

Really – no exceptions. “But it’s just a keepsake.” Doesn’t matter. The reproduction exists and therefore it is illegal if you didn’t get permission.

Broadcasting someone else’s music is a reproduction.

You need permission to do that. In fact, by now, you need LOTS of permissions! What is a broadcast? For our purposes, let’s define it like this: Any time an audio, visual or printed reproduction is shared with someone else who is not in the same room as you at the time of the sharing. First, let’s assume you already have received written permission for each of the other licenses needed, such as mechanical for the radio, or mechanical and synch for a video. Or even a mechanical, synch and performing rights license for a video of a piece in your recent concert. Now you need permission to share it. How you share it doesn’t really make much difference, except there are some agencies for some formats, and not for others. For formats such as radio, BMI and ASCAP have special licenses. But with the advent of digital media platforms, there are now a WHOLE HOST of options! Some claim to obtain licenses for you, others claim to give you licenses directly. Be very, very careful who you work with. ASCAP have developed a “New Media License” for online broadcasting, but only covers the music registered with ASCAP. Are there exceptions? Nope.


You need permission to share someone else’s music protected by copyright on YouTube.

Even then, as I have found, when you have permission, someone will still try to claim it. There are bots out there working 24/7. I once hosted a concert that included the winner of my concerto competition playing a Beethoven Sonata. Beethoven’s music is no longer protected by copyright. However, anyone else’s recording of Beethoven made after 1922 (at the time of writing) is protected. Even to this day, 9 years later, I still get an agency claiming it’s their recording in the video. I’ve since heard their recording with their artist, and it’s clearly not (to the trained ear) the same recording. Doesn’t stop them staking a copyright claim on that YouTube video at least once a year, though. It’s a nightmare. And no, there are no ads on that video, but whether or not you earn money from a recording or broadcast is irrelevant to copyright law, anyway. Confused? Let me know and I’ll explain further. Are there exceptions? Nope.

The actual music that is licensed:

A single license from any one organization does not give you permission to perform ALL music. Only the music represented by that organization. BMI licenses only give permission for music registered with BMI. Harry Fox only gives you permission for music registered with Harry Fox. In the traditional classical music world, including orchestras, bands, choirs, etc., there is a TON of music whose copyrights are owned by independent publishers or even the composers themselves.

You are required to reach out to every single one of them individually, if not represented by an agency!

And, to make matters worse, no response from the copyright owner does not give you permission by default. No response is no permission.

From there, it’s your risk.

And the risks are so minimal, most people get away with it. But, every once in a while, someone doesn’t.

I’d rather you do what’s right than what’s popular and easy, but it’s your choice.

As I said above, go get advice from a licensed legal professional 🙂