Songfacts Pages

Song Licensing

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We're often asked about how to secure the rights to use a song in a production of some kind, or how to clear a lyrics snippet for a book or other publication. There are a number of licenses that could apply, and in some cases you'll need more than one. The most common licenses are:

Master License

This is the right to use a specific recording of a song, granted by the owner of that recording, often a record company. You'll need it to use a song in a movie, TV show, video or other production. This license is also required when sampling a song, because you are using the actual recording.

You want to use "Life In The Fast Lane" by the Eagles in a video about auto racing you'll show at a convention.

You want to sample six seconds of "Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega in a song you're recording.

You want to distribute a video from a church service where the pastor played part of Chris Tomlin's song "I Lift My Hands" during the sermon.

Synchronization License

This gives you the right to "sync" the song to images, typically by editing video to the recording. So in that "Life In The Fast Lane" example, you'd need a synchronization license because there is video edited to the song. The owner (or owners) of the song's copyright control these and can be understandably particular about how they're used. For instance, when The Sopranos wanted to use "Don't Stop Believin'" in a key scene, they had to convince Steve Perry to let them.

Other examples:
You'd like to use "Protection" by Massive Attack in a trailer for your movie.

Your Scout troop put together a video to sell as a fundraiser that uses "Dynamite" by Taio Cruz in a montage.

Mechanical License

Required if you'd like to cover a song and sell the recording in any audio format. This also applies if you use just a portion of an existing song, including the lyrics. Unlike other licenses, these must be granted (compulsory) if proper procedures are followed and payments made, as long as there are no significant changes to the song, like altered lyrics. Payments from these licenses go to the writer of the song, as they do not involve the actual recordings.

You want to release your recording of "Superwoman" by Alicia Keys on iTunes.

You sang a few lines of "American Idiot" by Green Day in a song you recorded, and you'd like to release that song.

Print License

This is what you need if you'd like to quote lyrics in a book or other publication, or use them on a product. It also applies to the musical notation.

You want to use the lyrics "nothing satisfies, but I'm getting close" from the Foo Fighters song "All My Life" on a T-shirt you'll sell online.

You'd like to use a few lines of "Dreamboat Annie" by Heart as the subhead of a chapter of your eBook.

Public Performance License

Also known as a "Public Performance License," this is for permission to perform a song in public, including for broadcast. These are typically obtained by the venue where the performances take place, like a concert hall, coffee shop or radio station.

You own a bed and breakfast and would like to host an open-mic night.

You're having a cover band play at your barn as part of a festival you're putting on.

If you need advice or help licensing a song, go to our song licensing request page and select how you would like to use the song. We are not affiliated with the organizations that own the copyrights to the songs, but can help find the appropriate rights holders on your behalf.
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