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Music plays a big role in helping filmmakers create successful videos that audiences want to watch, but where can you find great, royalty free music downloads that will help you earn money on your videos? The Creative Commons (CC) allows artists to offer their songs and music for use by the public, but navigating the CC can be tricky. Certain Creative Commons licenses do not allow filmmakers to use music for commercial purposes.

What does commercial usage entail? What if your video is a simple makeup tutorial (noncommercial), but you earn income from YouTube ads? What if you provide a useful video webinar but then plug your book at the very end? Are these commercial usages? Let’s take a stroll through the Creative Commons to learn more about its licensing structure, and then we’ll explore what does and does not comprise commercial use of music for YouTube videos or any other videos that you might want to post on social media or your own website.

Welcome to the Creative Commons

Whenever an artist creates anything, from a song to a poem, video, or even just a set of lyrics, they own that work and possess a copyright on it. That means no one else has the right to use that work without the artist’s permission or without purchasing a license from the artist. That’s why the owner of the restaurant you dined at last night had to pay a license for the beautiful jazz music wafting from the speakers. It’s also why you can’t just use Katy Perry’s latest hit for your YouTube video background music without earning a swift takedown notice.

The restrictive nature of copyright is meant to protect artists, but it can backfire. Many artists want people to use and share their work so that they can gain recognition and visibility. For these people, copyright is less like a protective wall and more like a prison!

That’s where the Creative Commons galloped in (possibly on a white horse) around 2001. The Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization founded by the Center for the Public Domain. In one fell swoop the CC figured out a way to maintain the protections of copyright while also giving artists an easy way to offer their work for public use with optional restrictions.

Their solution comes in the form of six different types of CC licenses that range from complete flexibility to highly restrictive. The licenses work on top of the existing copyright and allow the artist to share their work while maintaining ownership.

(Note: This article is all about music, but the CC licenses can cover all sorts of things, from images to educational materials, technology, political advocacy, and even science!)

Sound a little confusing? Let’s make it simple. Each CC License has a name and a simple code that lets filmmakers quickly and easily understand what usage is allowed for each work.

Creative Commons Licenses

  • Attribution / CC BY: You are allowed to distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon the work. You CAN use it commercially. Credit must be given to the artist. The CC BY is the least restrictive license and gives you the most usage options.
  • Attribution-ShareAlike / CC BY-SA: You are allowed to remix, tweak, and build upon the work, including for commercial purposes. You must give credit to the artist. The twist with the CC BY-SA license is that you MUST also license your work as a CC BY-SA, which means you have to allow others to change and use your work for commercial purposes.
  • Attribution-NoDerivs / CC BY-ND: You can use this work for commercial use and you must credit the artist. You cannot change it in any way. That includes the obvious things like remixing and building upon a piece of music; however, even putting a song within a video is considered a derivative and is not allowed. This means that the CC BY-ND license is basically a no-go for most filmmaking needs.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial / CC BY-NC: You are allowed to remix, tweak, and build upon the work, but you cannot use it for commercial purposes. You must also give the artist credit for the work.  
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike / CC BY-NC-SA: You can change the work, but you cannot use it for commercial purposes. Additionally, you must give the artist credit and offer your work with the same license, (which would let others use and change what you’ve created in their own non-commercial works).
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs / CC BY-NC-ND: This license allows you to use a work for noncommercial purposes only as long as you give the artist credit and do not change the work in any way. Again, that means you CANNOT put a piece of music with this license into a video. The CC BY-NC-ND is the most restrictive license.

This may all seem dry and confusing, but for most filmmakers, the four licenses they should be the most focused on are: CC BY, CC BY-SA, CC BY-NC, and CC BY-NC-SA. If you don’t want other people to be able to use parts of your video in their own work, then you can ignore the CC BY-SA and the CC BY-NC-SA. That leaves just the Attribution license (CC BY) and the Attribution-NonCommercial license (CC BY-NC).

This leads us all the way back to our original question. What does it mean for a video to be “commercial” vs. “noncommercial”? That answer is incredibly important, because according to the CC, noncommercial licenses are the organization’s most popular type license. If you determine that your videos are noncommercial, you could drastically increase your CC music selection.

What Is Commercial Use?

Let’s tackle the big question. When you find the perfect piece of music, and it holds an Attribution-NonCommercial license (CC BY-NC), what counts as noncommercial use? According to the language of the license, noncommercial use is defined as, “not primarily intended for or directed towards commercial advantage or monetary compensation.”

Does this wording seem a little vague to you? That’s the point. According to the Creative Commons wiki, “the definition of NonCommercial is intentionally flexible; the definition is specific enough to make its intended operation and reach clear, but versatile enough to cover a wide variety of use cases.”

Certain cases are pretty cut and dry. If you add the music into a video game that you then sell or into an advertisement for your business, that’s clearly commercial use. The situation becomes murkier when we look at YouTube background music added into videos that garner YouTube ad revenue. The video itself might not be commercialized, such as a cool sports video or funny animal video, but if the intention is to generate enough followers to earn ad revenue does the video become a commercial product? What about if you include a callout for your business, book, or podcast at the end of your video? The CC definition suggests that the work can’t be primarily intended towards commercial advantage. How do you know if your video is primarily commercialized or only partly commercialized?

Our advice? (Keep in mind that we’re not lawyers.) It’s better to be safe than sorry. If you aren’t sure whether your video falls under the commercial category, it’s probably best not to use a work with a noncommercial CC license. By sticking with only commercial use CC licenses, you won’t have to worry about parsing the details or risking a lawsuit by the music’s copyright holder.

Special Tip: Love a piece of music with a noncommercial license but aren’t sure whether you can legally use it? You can always reach out to the artist and ask permission.

CC Licensed Music Versus Royalty Free Music Downloads

If you’re interested in wading into the Creative Commons, there are many different online tools that will help you search for music and will even let you sort by license type so you can, for example, only search for songs that allow for commercial use. You can also hop onto the Creative Commons site and Search the Commons, which will give you access to music from Jamendo, YouTube, SoundCloud, and ccMixter.

Using the CC can be helpful to patient filmmakers on a tight budget. The CC offers a wide range of music options for those who take the time to look. However, you’ll need to wade through a lot of poor quality music first, and you might not find exactly what you’re looking for. If something is free, there’s usually a reason!

If you’d rather not bother trying to keep all the different CC licenses straight, or if you don’t have the time to search around for that musical diamond in the rough, consider signing up with a company that specializes in royalty free music downloads for filmmakers.

At Soundstripe, our song library is filled with royalty free music for YouTube, your website, your other social media sites, or wherever else you want to use it. For one low monthly or yearly subscription cost, you can access our entire library and use all the songs you want any way you want. There are no confusing licenses or risks of getting sued for copyright infringement.

Check out our music library, and sign up for a subscription today.


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