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Licensing music for short films

Many a filmmaker has found themselves in hot water after not correctly gaining the required licenses and permissions for the music in their film. Here we have collected some advice on sourcing music for short films and obtaining the rights.

When do you have to license?

A license for the rights to the music is always required if you want to use it in your short film. You will need to gain permission from the owners of the music. Even if you just want to load it up on YouTube. Only videos made exclusively for private use are exempt from licensing.

What’s the process?

Essentially you pick the song, find out who owns the copyright and request their permission to use it. After this, you will need to negotiate the fee for the music, draw up a contract and then wait until you get the green light!

TIP: Remember to request permission across all territories and all media. Otherwise you might not be able to sell the film in certain countries, or load it up to VOD platforms.

Bear in mind that songs from high profile artists like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones will take longer to obtain permission, and will likely require deep pockets. If you want to keep costs down, choose songs from small, unsigned or local artists. They might be open to an agreement that is mutually beneficial.

Find out who owns the rights

Every recording has two individual copyrights. There is the person who wrote the song (they hold the publisher rights, aka ‘sync’ rights) and the person who recorded it (who holds the ‘master’ rights). In many cases, you’ll need to contact both the copyright owner of the musical composition and the copyright owner of the specific recording you’re using.

ASCAP is the go-to source of information about writers, performers, publishers, and alternate titles for copyrighted songs.

OneMusic is a joint initiative between APRA and Recorded Music NZ to provide efficient blanket music licenses.

Request the music rights

Once you have identified the rights holder/s, you should submit a synopsis of your film and the project’s budget for this piece of music. Provide as much detail as possible on how you intend to use the song. Is it over the opening or the closing credits? How heavily is the song featured in the film? Is it the focus of the audience’s attention or does it just play in the background? Mention the number of times the song will be used, the exact duration and placement for each use. Specify where you are planning to screen the film if you know this already. Mention some specific film festivals you are planning on entering.

Obtaining a music license for a film can be daunting for first time filmmakers. It requires custom negotiations with those who hold the copyright. While the song’s popularity and the prominence in the film usually determine the fee. The duration the song plays is not a contributing factor. However, if a song plays over the credits be prepared to be charged double.

Here are the four types of rights you will require:

  1. Synchronization (sync) License: These cover the composition and lyrics of a song. They also cover the right to synchronize a song or a piece of music with your visual image.
  2. Master Use License/Dubbing License: These cover the recorded piece of music. It is the right to reproduce a specific recording of a song in your film or other audio-visual content.
  3. Mechanical Rights: You need to clear these if you plan to duplicate your film and sell it on DVD. This is done through the rights society or directly with the music publisher.
  4. Performance rights: These need to be cleared if you film is going to be screened on TV or hosted online.

TIP: If you intend to record a cover version of a copyrighted song you still need to clear the sync rights, and also possibly the mechanical rights with the publisher, even if it’s just a character singing a few lines of a song in the background.

Copyright holders can set any fee they like or outright reject the license. It’s important to remember that musicians put time and effort into creating their song the same way filmmakers do. Approach musicians and copyright holders from a place of respect and collaboration from one creator to another for your best chance of securing an affordable fee. Tell them about your project (briefly), as they may be more likely to offer a lower fee if they like the sound of your film.

Film Music Agent offers stock agreements for you to use. This includes the request letters, festival licenses and general licenses for composers the master, synch and rights.

TIP: Be careful when selecting a pre-cleared song that it doesn’t strongly resemble a well-known tune. Remember when Eminem sued the New Zealand National Government for $600,000? That was because the National party’s use of a track titled Eminem Esque was “sufficiently similar” to Eminem’s original song that it impinged on his copyright.

Is there an easier way?

If you can’t afford to pay for music, or need to get it cheaply and quickly there are a number of other options.

Public Domain Music is free to use. Music is considered to be in the public domain if it meets any of the following criteria:

  • All rights have expired. This is usually 50 years after the artist’s death, but can extend up to 75 years in some countries.
  • Copyright protection was never secured.
  • The authors have explicitly put a work into the public domain – in all countries.

TIP: If the composition and the lyrics were written at different times, there may be two different copyright terms. Re-mastered recordings may also result in a new copyright.

Musopen is a repository of music in the public domain. The site provides recordings, sheet music, and textbooks to the public for free, without copyright restrictions.

TIP: Just because an artist is deceased doesn’t mean you can use their music. The work of some musicians, Elvis for example, could still require approval from that artist’s estate.

Incidental music rights for free is not a thing. Many people say that using up to 30 seconds of copyrighted music qualifies as fair use. This is a myth. Including any background sounds protected by copyright in your video could make you liable for infringement if you don’t obtain permissions.

TIP: If you’re a shooting a documentary where music is playing prominently in the background make sure you get signed permission agreements.

Production Music Libraries might be the most cost-effective option for your film. The music in these libraries is pre-cleared as they own the sync and master rights. You can purchase this music at set rates.

  • Musicbed grants a Synchronization/Master Use License. Music licenses purchased from the Musicbed website are granted for a perpetual term. This means the license does not expire or lose legitimacy.
  • Audio network offers licensed music that is valid globally, forever and across multiple platforms.
  • Premium Beat offers music with a Standard License that covers the usual popular types of use, e.g. internet videos, corporate videos and all non-commercially distributed projects. This license can be used for an unlimited number of projects, worldwide in perpetuity. They also offer a Premium License that covers advertising, TV, radio, in theatres and at events.
  • Art-List is a yearly subscription music licensing service that offers unlimited access to the entire catalogue of music for use in any private or commercial video production on any platform worldwide.
  • Sound Cloud offers a variety of high-quality tracks and most of the artists are unsigned. As long as the track is original, with no samples, you can contact and negotiate directly with the musician on obtaining the rights to their song.

CASE STUDY: Sean Baker, director of the critically acclaimed film Tangerine sourced the majority of the music in his film through the Sound Cloud and MUSOPEN platforms. The best Baker could offer his musicians was $200 per song, along with a guarantee they received points on the sale of the soundtrack. The offer wasn’t much but it was one that virtually all of the musicians he spoke to accepted, some even allowing him have their music for free.

Composers are a great way to give your film a unique sound. The Screen Composers Guild of New Zealand represents the majority of working composers who work in film and television in New Zealand. You can search their directory for the composer who would best suit your film. Another option is to get in touch with a university music department and ask them if they can put you in touch with a recent graduate or current student of Music Composition, ideally a Post-Graduate student. The universities of Auckland, Wellington (Victoria), Canterbury and Otago all offer great courses. Who knows you could find yourself the next Hans Zimmer.

Festival Rights are a trap

You can save money on music licensing fees by obtaining permission to use a song, but limited to play at festivals. Why pay for worldwide rights in perpetuity when you don’t need them right now? You can always come back for them later when your film gets a distribution deal, right? Wrong. The rights holders now have leverage over you and can hike up their prices. This will leave you with a difficult choice. Either pay the inflated fee or try to find a different song. This problem may also put off any distributors who are interested in your film as they don’t want to cover that cost when they acquire your film. Try to acquire licenses for the film that are the most long-term and all-inclusive as you can possibly afford from the beginning. If you are unsure of anything it’s best to consult with a music supervisor.