Music and Film Clips

Using Music and Film Clips Without Violating Copyright Law


If you are creating book trailers, audiobooks, or online videos that include preexisting music or film clips, copyright law can be one of your biggest headaches. The first step to avoid copyright violations is to identify who owns the copyrights in the preexisting music or film clip. The second step is to license the rights needed for your multi-media project.

Movie and film clips have several components worthy of copyright protection. A great thing for the artists. But for you, that translates into a copyright clearance–obtaining permission from all the copyright owners before you use the clip in your own work. Most music and film clip rights belong to a group of different creators, and each right may have one or more owner.

Music Clips

Using a preexisting music recording for a multi-media project requires the license to at least two copyrights, the musical composition and the sound recording.

  1. Musical composition
    • The copyright in a musical composition includes both the rights to the words and the music. Most lyricists and composers assign their copyrights to the music publishers.
    • To license these copyrights, you will need what is called a synchronization or “sync” license from the music publisher. Often a music composition will have multiple songwriters. Each of these might be affiliated with different music publishers. A sync license will be needed from each music publisher for each songwriter.
    • When you contact the music publisher, your request to use a particular musical composition should include specifics like: the nature of the multi-media project, how the song will be used, what images will be used with the song, whether the use is personal or commercial. Music publishers have forms for you to use when requesting a sync license. After you submit your request, the publisher will respond with a quote and propose deal points that can then be negotiated.
  2. Sound recording
    • A record company or producer usually owns the copyright in a sound recording. To license the sound recording copyright, you will need a master-use license. As with the music publisher, your request to use a particular recording should include detailed information about how the song will be used, what images will be used with the music, and any other details associated with the project that will help the record company make an informed decision about granting permission.

How to find music copyright owners

Start early when trying to locate copyright holders in music or film clips. Securing a license can take time. To find the songwriters and their music publishers, search for the song of interest on one of the main performing rights organizations like BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC. While these organizations deal with performance licenses so the artists are paid when the songs are played, the databases do contain information about the lyricist, composer, and music publisher too.

Sync or master-use license fees

The costs for sync or master-use licenses are all over the map. It could be $25 or $10,000 or more depending on the music and artists. Sadly, for authors making book trailers on a limited budget, you might not be licensing music from an established artist.

Other options

If you are unable to secure sync and master-use licenses, or the license is cost prohibitive, there are other options.

  1. You can either use public domain music. Search the internet for public domain music and you will find plenty of related sites.
  2. You can use royalty free music from stock music websites like freestockmusic, Bensound, incompetech, MotionArray, and freeplaymusic.
  3. You can obtain a sync license that is less expensive with indie musicians who have posted their music on sites like songfreedom, roundhillmusicrumblefish, directionalmusic, and haveasync.
  4. You can create your own content if you are so inclined. This might mean you and/or a hired artist record your own music or record preexisting music. If you hire an artist to perform a preexisting song, you will still need a license to use the musical composition. Also, you want releases from the performers you hire. If you want to change the lyrics to a song, you will need permission from the music publisher. Permissions can give the copyright owner the right to approve how a song is used. Many songwriters are concerned about reputation and if the goodwill associated with the song (read here–earning power of the song) will be damaged, e.g. when used in a parody.

Film and TV Clips

Like music clips, copyrights in film and TV clips are owned by a group of creators, each with their own copyright. While getting permission to use music clips is relatively easy, getting permission to use film clips is not.

  1. Usually, film clips require releases from actors, narrators, and voices featured in the clip, as well as the owner of the film or TV show and a fee to the directors and writers guilds.
  2. If the film clip contains music, you must obtain permission from the composer separately, and if appropriate, the lyrist and record company.
  3. If you want to obtain a license for the use of a film or television clip, contact the Screen Actors Guild-AFTRA to locate the performer’s agent. The copyright owner of the film will usually be identified at the beginning of the film and in the copyright notice at the end of the film with the credits. The copyright notice will also appear on the DVD box.
  4. Movie companies tend to charge high fees for use of clips. Some movie companies refuse to license rights at all. Likewise, actors can also charge extremely high license fees. In short, using film clips may not be financially feasible for most people, especially for small projects like a book trailer.

Fair Use

If you intend to transform the work, you might fall within the Fair Use exception and not need permission to use the music or film clip. Fair Use is a rather complicated area of law. Often it is hard to figure out what is considered Fair Use and what is not.

The courts use a number of factors to determine if a particular use of copyright protected material is considered fair (like the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyright protected work, the amount and substantiality of the part taken, and the effect of the use on the market). In general, if you are using a music or film clip for educational, research, commentary, or non-profit purposes, or if you are transforming the clip to create a new meaning, then your use of the clip is considered Fair Use. Most courts consider a commercial use as less deserving of a Fair Use exemption than a non-commercial use. A book trailer delivered to the public would be a commercial use.

Remember, Fair Use is a defense to copyright infringement, meaning you must be sued to assert Fair Use. For more information on Fair Use, see my earlier post on Copyright Permissions. I would recommend contacting a lawyer to make sure your intended use falls within the Fair Use exception.

Additional points for book trailers

  1. Whoever creates your book trailer (professional or friend), make sure you have a signed agreement that you own the rights to the work. See my earlier post on Work Made For Hire contracts.
  2. You will need model releases for anyone in your video. Any images of children require parental permission.
  3. Products protected by trademarks may require permission if featured in your video.

Photo Credit: Visual Hunt

Legal Disclaimer: This information is provided for educational purposes only. Consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for all legal opinions for your specific situation.

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