Soundtrack Copyrights and Licencing

Here’s a question that I get pretty often. Sound design is half of any film production, and music is more than half of sound. Creating a musical score for a film is difficult, particularly for filmmakers with little or no budget. Why not just use pre-existing music? And here I quote from a recent email: “There is a song that I have on a CD that I would like to use in a movie. Is that even a reality? Who do I have to get permission from, and how?”

These are tricky waters to navigate. It is certainly possible, but can be very complicated legally, and is usually very expensive to get the
appropriate license. There are no set formulae as to who owns any particular rights to any particular song. Often, the band or artist will
retain ownership of the song they have written, the record label will be have ownership of the recording they have produced, and a distribution company will purchase full rights to sell the songs on an album. Now there are three separate licenses from three separate entities that you must purchase in order to use the song in your film.

Things can be even more complicated if it’s an older song, and since then record companies have merged, or distribution companies have sold off blocks of rights. Current records of who owns what can be difficult to find. Fortunately, there are a number of services available that will make sorting through those licenses easier, such as ASCAP. For a fee, they will handle most of the paperwork, but if you can get a second opinion from a copyright or entertainment lawyer, do so.

There are also different types of licenses that you can by, such as the right to use a song in a film that will only be shown in North America.
This regional licence will be cheaper than a global license. Also, you can purchase rights that have a limited shelf life. If you are producing a
television program or documentary, this might be a good way to cut corners, but if you are creating a feature or short film, you should try to buy rights in perpetuity. You can also, if you have the budget, purchase the right to re-sell the songs, but this is mainly for large studios who will later release their own soundtrack album and would like to include non-original songs from the film.

As I said, it gets tricky, particularly since song rights and performance rights are two different things. For example, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, written in 1808, is copyright free and in the public domain. However, a recent recording made recently by the Boston Pops or London Philharmonic is not. Perhaps you can find a local orchestra who will allow you to record their performance of a classical work, or possibly a royalty-free music library that has the same song. Be warned though; cheap music libraries are overused as it is. Think twice about using Network Music for even a no-budget short film.

To sum up, yes; it is doable. However, it could be very expensive, and I am not an entertainment lawyer. Make sure you do in-depth research on the specific song that you want to use, and make sure that you are totally covered and within budget before you commit to using it. I have seen directors and writers literally kill film projects by insisting that certain songs be included.