Legalities of Using Popular Music in Slideshows and Videos

Oct 25, 2016

Topic: Licensing
Time Investment: 8 Minutes
Suggested Product:  Commercial Contract Bundle


Music is one of the most regulated and restricted areas of copyright law, so you need to be careful using it in your business.

You’re creating a video of your client’s special day, and she wants their song to be on it.

Or maybe you want to include a popular song on your website.

Music can bring the experience of watching a wedding video or browsing a photography website to another level.

But, before you do, you should consider the legality of using certain music in your business products.

Copyright law, in general, is a confusing area, even for many attorneys.  When you get into specific areas of copyright law, it can get even more confusing.  Music is one of the most regulated and restricted areas of copyright law, so you need to be careful using it in your business.  Think about it this way, would you want someone using your pictures (without paying you anything) to promote their business?  I wouldn’t, and I’m certain you wouldn’t, either.  This area of copyright law is to prevent people from making money off of the music of others without permission.  Being so heavily regulated and restricted, there are steep penalties for breaking the law, including damages of up to $150,000, attorney’s fees for the other side, and even jail time!  So, let’s talk about how you can (legally) use music and what music you can use.


Is it legal to use popular music on my website or in videos sold to my clients?

Generally speaking, no.  In order to use music for profit (which would be a business website or anything you sell to your client), you have to be sure you are not breaking copyright laws.  Copyright laws require you to have a license to use anything copyrighted, except for a few exceptions which relate to non-profit, educational, and religious use (your photography business isn’t going to qualify for an exception!).  Anything that falls into the category of “popular” music will be copyrighted.


Can I get a copyright license to use popular music?

Yes, you can.  To do so, you would need to contact whoever has these rights (or their representative) and purchase a license.  For most small businesses, this is too expensive to do for popular music.


But I’ve heard that if it’s in the public domain, I can use it.  Isn’t all popular music in the public domain?

You are partially right.  If it is in the public domain, you don’t need a license to use it.  However, many people misunderstand what “public domain” means.  It doesn’t mean that it is released to the public or heard on the radio.  Being in the public domain essentially means that the music is so old that the copyright on it has expired, or the artist did not copyright it, but released it.  In the US, anything that was published in 1922 or earlier is considered to be in the public domain.


 Are there any other options for me to use music on my website or in client videos?

Yes!  You can purchase royalty free music clips to use.  There are a number of websites that offer royalty free music clips for purchase.  But, these are not going to contain popular music.  Musicians make a lot of money off of royalties on their work, so the most popular ones aren’t going to allow their music to be used royalty free.  On some sites, you can type in the name of a popular artist (like Taylor Swift), and it will give you available clips that the site thinks are similar to her.  Some of these sites are free and some you pay for a license to use the music.  Even the ones you pay for are reasonably priced for a small business to use.  See this post for a list of sites with royalty free music.

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