A Checklist for Using Music in Film or other Audio-Video Content

Are you a director or producer looking to use music for use in a movie, TV program, commercial, music video or other audio-visual content? If so, here’s what you need to do in order to do so legally:

1. Obtain a synch license for the musical composition

US copyright law grants the owner of a musical composition the right to control the reproduction of the composition, including using the composition in audio-visual content. This is called the right of synchronization, or “synch” right, because music is being synchronized with visual images or content.

A synch license is granted by the owner of a musical work and specifies the manner in which the music may be used. Unlike some other types of music licenses, there is no compulsory license for synch rights, which means the owner of the composition does not have to agree to grant you a license; synch licenses, and any fees that would be paid, are subject to negotiation. Typically, you can obtain a synch license by contacting the music publisher of the work(s) you wish to use. For assistance identifying ASCAP music publishers, try searching ASCAP’s database of performed works, “ACE”.

2. Get a master license for the recording you plan to use

Synch licenses cover only the underlying musical composition (i.e., the words and music), and not any specific recording of the composition. In order to obtain permission to use an existing recording of the composition, you must secure a master license from the owner of the sound recording, typically the record label. If you want to create your own cover version of a song, you won’t need a master license but you will still need a synch license for the composition.

3. Get an ASCAP license

US copyright law also grants to composition owners the right to control the public performance of their compositions. If, for example, you make your film or other audio-visual content available for streaming on your website and/or mobile app, you are publicly performing the content and all of the music in it. You must, therefore, also secure a public performance license. Generally, these licenses are granted by a performing rights organization, such as ASCAP. In addition, a publisher and/or writer may also grant public performance licenses for their compositions. ASCAP public performance licenses are not specific to any one song or group of songs by a specific songwriter or publisher. Rather, an ASCAP license gives licensees (whether directors, producers, creators and website operators) the flexibility to perform the ASCAP repertory, which contains rights to millions of works.

You can buy an ASCAP license agreement for a website or mobile app online. If you have questions about whether you need one, call the ASCAP Licensing team at 1-800-505-4052 or Live Chat with an ASCAP Licensing representative 9am – 7pm EST Monday through Friday.

Additional Resources
ASCAP Cue Sheet Corner
How to Acquire Music for Films:
Find a composer for your project at the ASCAP Composer Spotlight