As a musician and royalty-free music library owner, I often get asked if it is OK to use copyrighted music if you are not making money.
You must get permission to use copyright music in your project, regardless of how much money a project makes. Projects that are not making money, must still obtain permission to use copyrighted music.
If you are in a position where you want to use copyrighted music in your project but have a zero budget, there are ways to get excellent quality copyright music without the risk of breaking the law.
Let’s take a look at how you can use copyrighted music safely and freely in your projects, to ensure you never run the risk of copyright infringement.
Is it copyright infringement if you don’t profit?
There is an assumption, particularly amongst beginner filmmakers, that copyright music is OK to use when there is no profit-making involved. This is not true.
You might know somebody who is using copyrighted music and “getting away with it”, but in reality, this is a breach of copyright law if that person:
- Does not have permisson from the music copyright holder.
- Does not qualify under any of the “fair use” guidelines.
Media platforms such as YouTube & Instagram, use advanced bots and algorithms to scan hundreds of hours of video per hour and identify music snippets. These bots are picking up on illegally used music and as a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult for individuals to get away with using copyrighted music without permission.
In this digital music age, don’t take the risk and always:
- Ensure you have permission from the music copyright holder before using a piece of music.
- Can prove to anyone who asks that you have persmuission to use the music. Thic can be done by getting a licencse agreement in writing frrom the musc supplier.
Can I use copyrighted music if I give credit?
There is a common misconception that if you give credit to a musical artist or composer, that you can use their copyrighted music. This is not true.
Giving music credit to a music artist does not make you exempt from copyright infringement. You must always have permission from the music artist before using their copyrighted music.
Although it is always really great to tell everyone who performed or created the music you are using, this is not the same as getting permission.
What happens if you are caught using copyrighted material?
What happens as a result of getting caught using copyrighted music will defer depending on the situation.
Typically, the following consequences may result due to copyright infringement:
- You may have to pay monetary damages.
- You may have to give the copyright holder your profits.
- You may have to destroy the material in which you used the music illegally.
Of course, how severe and costly this is will depend on individual cases, but according to the copyright infringement penalties listed by Purdue University, the law provides a range from $200 to $150,000 for each work infringed.
In addition, the person in breach of copyright law will have to pay for all legal and court fees.
Here in the UK, the government’s Citizen Advice for Scotland gives some excellent information and examples for calculating financial compensation for online copyright infringement, which you can find <here>
Is “incidental music use” breaking copyright law?
Picking up incidental music when filming on location can be a big concern for filmmakers.
Imagine that you are making a video for YouTube and are at a local park filming. Then a car pulls up with the windows down and Taylor Swift’s latest music is booming from their car speakers. No doubt, parts of this music will end up being recorded onto your film. This is incidental music.
You never intended this music to feature in your film, but now you are stuck with it unless you re-film or do some fancy sound editing.
Some may argue that this music comes under the terms of fair use as you never intended to capture this music, the film has nothing to do with this music and it only features for a small amount of time in the background.
However, as with all “fair use” terms in music, this is a grey area and this could be debated in court.
In this situation, you may have to take a balanced approach and access the risk that this incidental music poses to your content.
In this example, given that you plan to upload to YouTube and the song is by Taylor Swift, who is a major well-known artist, this incidental music will most likely be picked up by the YouTube Content ID bots and you will receive a copyright strike.
For me personally, incidentally picking up well-known music is too much of a risk and in this situation, I would process the sound to remove it. You will need to complete your own risk assessment to make the call.
Can I use copyrighted music in YouTube videos?
In order to use copyrighted music in YouTube, the best options are to:
- Use royalty free music.
- Use the YouTube audio library.
My own music library is free royalty-free music that is safe to use on YouTube. Below is a link to this free music for YouTube library:
Alternatively, if you would like to learn more about the YouTube Audio Library and how you can use YouTube’s own free music, have a look at my article, “Free Music for YouTube”.
Although I am not a music lawyer, I spend A LOT of my week dealing with music contracts and music law so this area is fascinating to me. Some of my other Music Copyright Guides might be useful if you find this area as interesting as I do!