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

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

What licenses must I get to use a song in my audio-visual content?

If you are using a pre-recorded song or another pre-recorded piece of music on your film, there are two main rights you need to clear; that is to say, you need to get two different licenses to use the music (and may also need a third).

  Synchronization License: This is the right to synchronize a song or a piece of music with your visual image. It must be obtained from the copyright owner of the music, which is usually the publisher. You can find out who the publisher is by using ASCAP's Clearance Express (ACE) at www.ascap.com/ace. Songs that are not represented by ASCAP may be found at HFA (www.harryfox.com). You will be provided with a contact at the publisher's Business Affairs or Licensing Department.

  Master Use License: This is the right to reproduce a specific recording of a song in your film or other audio-visual content. You clear this right with the record label who owns the specific recording you would like to use; see the liner notes of the recording to find out which company this is. Alternatively, you can get contact information for record labels by calling ASCAP's Film/TV department (323-883-1000). You will be provided with a contact at the record label's Business Affairs Department.

  An ASCAP License (only needed if video will be used on a public website or mobile app): If you make your 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. Therefore, you must also secure a public performance license which is generally granted by a performance rights organization, such as ASCAP. You can buy an ASCAP license agreement for a website/mobile app online. If you have trouble with the online form, you may live chat with a representative on our website or call 1-800-505-4052 to speak with a representative over the phone. IMPORTANT NOTES: If you are only placing your video on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram or another social media channel, you do NOT need an ASCAP license. ASCAP does NOT issue single song licenses. We only offer blanket licenses, which cover the entire ASCAP repertory. If you need to use one or two songs in your video, please revisit the "Synchronization License" bullet point above for how to obtain this license.

What do license fees cost?

License fees are determined by various factors, including how the music will be used, the duration of the use, the number of times the music will be used and where the film or media will be performed. In all cases, the fees are negotiable and not all publishers and record labels charge the same amount. Students working on films that are only shown within an educational environment can often negotiate reduced fees. Independent filmmakers planning to show their films at film festivals can also often negotiate a reduced fee called a Festival Use License. These reduced rates are based on limited screenings of the film. Once the film has been sold for theatrical release, the fees will increase based on the potential growth in both viewership and revenues. It is best to negotiate this increased fee in advance. Negotiating in advance for possible future performances in different types of media (theatrical, TV, cable, internet, etc.) is often referred to as a Step Deal.

What information should I include in my request for music rights?

  Submit a synopsis of the film/media and the project's budget

  Provide as much detail as possible on how you intend to use the song: main title (opening credit) or end title (closing credit); feature (song is the main focus of the viewers' attention) or background (song plays in the background of a scene); number of times the song is used, duration and placement for each use.

  Specify where your film will be screened. For example, is your film a student film being viewed solely in an educational environment, or is it an independent film, which will screen at festivals?

  Ask how the fee will increase in the event of possible future performances in different types of media.

  If you are planning on securing soundtrack rights at the same time, ask how that affects your fees.

What are the consequences of screening or sharing my audio-visual content without securing music rights?

U.S. copyright law provides that you can be sued by a music publisher and/or record label, for using their property without their consent. Considering that you will work more and more with publishing companies and record labels as your career moves forward, not clearing the rights in advance is not a professional way to start your relationships with them. Clearing the rights and having step deals in place will also help in the event that your film receives a distribution deal.

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