“Royalty free music” – a phrase you’ll hear quite often in the creative / production realm, but it’s all too often misunderstood. Is it actually free? We’ll address some of the most common misconceptions right here.
Is it free?
Royalty free music does not mean free music despite many people often assuming it does.
The term royalty free music isn’t at all related to the purchase fee (or lack of) when buying a piece of music.
What it’s actually referring to is the type of license that you are buying.
In this case, you’d be purchasing a license that permits you to use a piece of music in a specified way.
Depending on the agreed restrictions of the license, this could potentially mean a one-time payment for unlimited streams/plays.
The price of the music depends entirely on what the copyright owner sees as a fair amount for a royalty free license.
You can however, get royalty free music without paying.
This means the owner of the work is willing to allow it to be used without a fee. Most likely in exchange for credit/attribution.
The important thing to remember is that the term royalty free does not automatically mean free music.
What are royalties?
In case anyone is wondering what royalties are, we will quickly explain.
Royalties are residual payments owed to the copyright owner whenever their music is used in a number of ways.
Here are the different kinds of royalties that are common in the music industry.
Mechanical royalties are owed for the physical or digital recreation of copyrighted music.
A mechanical license is needed before you can manufacture copyrighted music.
This covers CDs/vinyl, digital downloads and even downloads for ringtones etc.
Every time a copyrighted work is manufactured or downloaded, a mechanical royalty is due.
For example, a mechanical royalty is owed every time a CD/vinyl is pressed, whether they sell or not.
In digital terms, a mechanical royalty is owed evertime a copyrighted work is downloaded (downloaded not streamed).
If an artist owns the copyright for their music then the record label or distributor would owe an agreed royalty payment per unit pressed/downloaded.
Performance royalties are owed whenever copyrighted music is performed, recorded or played/streamed in public.
This covers areas like radio, television, nightclubs, stores etc. Anywhere that you might hear music in public.
Agencies like ASCAP, BMI and PRS (in the UK) will collect performance royalties. These agencies negotiate licenses for public use and monitor the use of any music registered with them. They then collect and distribute royalties on behalf of the copyright owners.
Synchronization royalties are related to the use of copyrighted music in sync with visual media.
For example, whenever copyrighted music is used in film, TV, video games or any other form of visual media, royalties are owed to the copyright holder.
Print music royalties are probably the least talked about.
They refer to royalties owed for the printed reproduction of copyrighted music.
This covers things like sheet music and lyric books.
Does royalty free mean copyright free?
The answer is NO, Royalty free does not mean copyright-free. The copyright is owned by the creator.
The copyright owner may permit someone to use their music for free but copyright still exists.
Another often confusing that having the “right to copy” does not mean the music is royalty free.
For example, you may have permission to use a piece of music for free but the owner retains performance royalty rights.
The closest you will get to finding copyright free music is music that’s in the public domain. We’ll get to it in a little bit.
The copyright owner retains the right to dictate the terms of the license.
Things like who can use it, where they can use it, the duration of the license, how often it can be used and the cost. The copyright owner may wish to include restrictions on certain aspects of the license. Which could mean a further license fee when the agreed restrictions are reached.
Creative Commons license
This is another term you might have heard and not been entirely sure what it meant.
Creative Commons is an American non-profit organization founded by Lawrence Lessig with the purpose of making creative works (such as music) available for others to use and share legally under the Creative Commons license.
The conditions of use are set by the copyright owner or author as often referred to.
The main conditions of a Creative Commons license are usually that you must give attribution/credit to the author and not use their work commercially.
For example, if you want to use a copyrighted track as background music for your YouTube video that’s fine.
Providing that you attribute the author in the description.
However, if your video is monetized or you wish to use/sample copyrighted work for a project you will gain financially from, that’s not okay.
There are different types of licenses/conditions within Creative Commons.Each will specifically tell you how and where you can use the copyrighted work.
ALWAYS make sure you are legally permitted to use copyrighted work in the way you intend to use it.
Creative Commons work with the major sharing platforms worldwide, like Youtube, Vimeo, Wikipedia etc. To date, well over 1 billion copyrighted works have been shared through Creative Commons licenses.
Public Domain music
The simple explanation is that music in the public domain is free to recreate and distribute without permission.
In the U.S all works published before 1923 are in the public domain. Any works published after 1923 but before 1978 will have copyright protection for 95 years.
All works created in this period but not published before 1978 will have copyright protection that lasts for 70 years after the death of the author.
There are some grey areas in the public domain so make sure you do your research properly.
For example, a composition may be in the public domain but the masters are not.
What we mean by masters is the master copy of a specific recording.
For example, if someone records their own version of a public domain work then they will own the rights to that recording.
So, you would need to have permission from the copyright owner to use that specific recording.
The Standford University Libraries website has an article about copyright and fair use basics you can dig into.
Why use royalty free music?
This is a pretty simple answer.
Royalty free music means with a one-time fee/agreement you can continuously use the copyrighted material.
It takes away the need to get involved in more complicated license agreements.
It’s a simple way to add great music to your project.
If you create video content or have a podcast then royalty free music is for you.