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YouTube Creators: Here’s What You Need to Know About Music Licensing

Soundstripe Team

May 21, 2018

Cultivating over a billion users around the world, YouTube offers content creators unprecedented access to their viewers. Whether you’re a teenager recording makeup tips on your phone, a digital marketing agency repping name brands, or a big personality searching for your fan base, YouTube could be your key to viral success and all the ad revenue that comes with it.

Of course, to start a YouTube channel and monetize your videos, you have to follow the platform's rules. And one of the biggest hazards for new content creators is music licensing.

This isn’t a small issue. In fact, if you accidentally use music that doesn’t belong to you, a YouTube takedown notice and lost ad revenue could be the least of your worries!

So here’s everything you need to know about YouTube music licensing so you can focus on bumping up your viewership instead of prepping for court.  

A Quick Lesson About Copyright

Here's something every YouTube creator needs to know about copyright law: Music licensing is the process of getting an artist's permission to use their work. The whole process exists to make sure musicians get recognized (and paid), but creators are able to incorporate each other's work into different projects.

Here's an example of what that looks like: Let’s say you want to work through your complicated relationship with your ex. You jot down some bad lyrics about your messy breakup, strum a few chords on a guitar, and turn it into a song.

And, just like that, a copyright is born.

As the copyright owner of your new song, you own:

  • The recording of your song (a.k.a. your performance)
  • The notes of the song (the guitar chords you arranged)
  • The lyrics of the song (the specific word patterns)

No one else has the right to use your performance, the chords of the song, or your lyrics unless they get your permission first. And if you register the copyright through the U.S. copyright office, you can sell the rights to your song, license your song, prevent others from using your song, and take legal action against anyone who tries to use the song without your permission.

This is copyright law in a nutshell, and it applies to everything. Any time someone plays music, the songs must be licensed first. That includes music in video games, the samba music playing at your favorite Mexican restaurant, and even the songs your fitness instructor plays in the gym.

As a content creator, you don’t have some magical immunity against copyright and music licensing. If you want to use music as part of your YouTube video, even if you aren’t trying to make money, you still need permission from the copyright owner or a license.

Do You Need A YouTube Music License?

We know that you would never ever try to game the system, but just in case you have a friend who might be thinking sneaky thoughts, keep reading. This “friend” might assume that with over 30,000 hours of content uploaded every hour, there’s no way YouTube can possibly police every video.

Your "friend" would be wrong.

Over the past few years, YouTube has put a lot of effort into identifying and punishing content creators who abuse copyright law. And since there's no special YouTube music license, that means every video needs to follow the same rules as everyone else.

YouTube primarily relies on two systems. First, any musician who believes their work is being used without permission can submit a copyright infringement notice. YouTube will quickly pull down your video if they find merit to the claim — and in some cases they'll take the video down while they investigate, just to be safe.

Second, YouTube is always improving its Content ID system. This algorithm constantly scans new video uploads, searching for any copyrighted music or video footage. Content ID contains more than 50 million active reference files that it compares against new videos, and that number is constantly growing. (And no, this isn't the algorithm you want to find your content and rank it at the top of search results.)

Experts tend to agree that YouTube’s ability to ferret out pirated music is particularly good. And what that means for your "friend" is that it’s not a matter of if they'll be caught, but when.

(For what it's worth, if your video has been taken down incorrectly, you can dispute the infringement notice or Content ID takedown.)

What Happens if You Use Unlicensed Music

Using music without permission on YouTube is an offense that the video giant takes very seriously. The system doesn’t matter if you didn’t know the rules or accidentally captured a song playing from a nearby store while you were recording outside.

It's still copyright infringement, and the only way YouTube can protect itself is by enforcing copyright law every single time.

Let's so you posted a video with a song you don't own. In an absolute best case scenario, YouTube will take down the video, meaning you'll lose any potential ad revenue until you get the situation figured out. YouTube will also give you a strike, which requires you to take an online Course about copyright law.

These strikes work just like the ones in baseball: If you get three strikes, you're out. Except instead of walking to the dugout while your friends tease you, YouTube takes down your channel and slaps you with a lifetime ban from the platform.

If you think that's bad, the situation can get so much worse. The song's copyright holder may decide to drag you to court, and you could end up paying thousands of dollars to settle the case.

(As another word of advice, don't mistake "attribution" for "permission." It's nice of you to give the artist credit for using their song, but that's not the same as paying to license the song.)

How To License Music For YouTube

So, is all music off limits for your YouTube content? Are you going to have to put your content creation dreams on hold so you can learn the jazz flute and make all your own music? No! (Though you should definitely learn the jazz flute anyway.)

There are multiple ways to find music for YouTube for your videos. And all you need to do is read through this post to understand how to license music for YouTube safely.

Get Permission From The Artist

If you have lots of money, time, and a personal lawyer, you can negotiate with each artist (or their publisher or label) to get permission to use their music. New or unknown artists may give you a good deal, or even let you use their music for free.

This option can seem like the perfect situation, but the reality is that it's also incredibly time-consuming. And since most artists will want some sort of compensation, it'll end up being expensive.

Unless you’re producing a major studio film or have a $600,000 budget for your TV commercial, licensing a famous song probably isn’t the best use of your time or funds.

Creative Commons

Artists can open up their song to public use through a Creative Commons license. You can find websites that curate these songs for easy access and review, but you still need to be careful. The Creative Commons license covers a lot of different uses, but it's up to the original artist to set which uses are okay or not. So while these songs might be "free use," they tend to have a lot of stipulations on where and how they can be used.

If you decide to go this route to avoid YouTube music licensing entirely, you'll definitely want to read up on Creative Common licenses. And make sure to triple check the permissions granted before you use a Creative Commons song in one of your videos.

Public Domain

A copyright doesn’t exist forever. The official ruling is that a piece of music enters the public domain 75 years after the death of the creator (so long as no one files a copyright extension).

Works in the public domain are free for you to use any way you like. The problem is that public domain music tends to be 100 years old. So you won’t exactly find that epic rock ballad to pair with your project.

But hey, if you’ve been dying to use “Danny Boy” in a video, you're in luck!

Stock Music Site

Your last and most reliable option is stock music libraries designed specifically to provide great music for law-abiding content creators such as yourself.

The beauty of these libraries is that they handle all of the music licensing and royalty issues, which means you'll never have to worry about landing in hot water with YouTube or a copyright holder.

Some of these sites charge you per song or even per use, which is only a little less expensive than negotiating directly with an artist. But companies like Soundstripe make it as easy as possible: Just sign up for a subscription and get unlimited access to an entire library of royalty free music, sound effects, and stock videos.

(If you want to compare Soundstripe to other music licensing companies before you make a decision, check out this blog post.)

YouTube Music Licensing Made Easy

That's right, you can download and use as many songs as you want. But the best part is that you never have to worry about YouTube music licensing again — any song you license for your YouTube videos will be protected by Soundstripe's licensing agreement forever.

In other words, stock music sites like Soundstripe save you time and money. That way you can get back to making amazing, viral videos and stop worrying about takedown notices, copyright strikes, and scary lawsuits.

Now that you’ve read this article, you know how to license music for YouTube. And you have no excuse for abusing music copyright in your videos. 

So sign up for a Soundstripe account today and see how big of a different radio-quality songs make on your videos.


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