Using Music in YouTube Videos under Royalty Free License (YouTuber Law #45)

I've been watching some of my favorite YouTubers only to question their usage of music. How are they getting rights to use professionally produced and performed music? Are the YouTubers performing compositions that are in the public domain. Are they licensing music under commercial licenses? Are they utilizing royalty free music?

So, I've been researching YouTube. Watching various videos providing advice and direction on how to best find, use and incorporate music into videos. But what I realized was that most of these videos are just wrong. They're wrong on the law. Now most times, when videos present wrong legal advice, its not such a big deal. The problem is that in this case, other YouTubers are following the wrong advice.

If you follow the advice of some of the most popular videos on YouTube on the subject of music subject to Royalty Free License, you would be violating copyright law. So, I decided to provide a guide on the subject. What is a royalty free license and how to use such music in YouTube videos. As always, if you have any questions, find any area lacking in information or just seek some advice, feel free to reach out to me in the comments below.

Most YouTubers, when they're thinking about adding music to their videos search for royalty free licensed music. What is royalty free music? Let' start with what it is not...


Royalty Free Music Is Not:

It's not free! Royalty free does not mean that you don't need to pay for the music. While there are some music libraries, like YouTube's own Audio Library, that provide royalty free music free of charge, the term "free" in royalty free does not refer to the cost of getting the music.

It's not copyright free. Not sure where this term ever came from, but it is used very loosely in YouTube videos. The minute a composer writes down his musical composition on paper, he has a copyright in the composition. The minute a musician performs the music live, he has a copyright in that live performance. The minute a band records an album, it has a copyright in the music recorded. So the term copyright free makes no sense.

It's not music in the public domain. When we refer to the public domain, we are discussing a composition or recording that has lost its copyright. Mozart and his heirs no longer have any copyright in his famous Piano Concerto No. 5, written in 1773. Why? Because copyright is given for a limited time period, in the United States for 95 years, and that has long passed. So Mozart's composition (not any specific performance by a modern pianist) is in the public domain. But that fact has nothing to do with royalty free music.

Royalty free does not mean that you can use the music any which way you want. Royalty free music can (and is) licensed subject to different usage restrictions. Some royalty free music is licensed for any YouTube usage. Some royalty free music can be used on limited YouTube videos (like non-commercial). Other royalty free music may not be used on YouTube at all.

Purchasing royalty free music does not mean you own the music. All you receive, anytime you "purchase" music is a license. You never own it. What you're doing is licensing it for specifically approved usages.

Royalty Free Music Is ...

The term Royalty Free refers to the method by which the music is licensed for usage. A better term would be "flat rate licensing". Under royalty free, music is licensed to you, the YouTuber, under a flat rate for certain uses.  Not for a single limited use (like for one video), but, usually, for as many videos as you'd like. Not for a single purpose (like videos only), but, usually, for usage in many (not unlimited) media forms. Often it is easier to understand royalty free by looking at the more established form of music licensing, "rights-managed licensing".

Rights-managed licensing prices music based on usage. You pay every time time you use the music in a specific format or broadcasted to a specific number of people. So if you licensed the music under a rights-managed license, you would usually be restricted to usage based on how you used it, how many people will hear it, in what media form you used it, did you make any changes to it, in what country did you broadcast it, was it used for commercial or non-commercial purposes. As you can imagine, rights-managed licenses benefit composers and performers on a per usage basis, but make usage of such music prohibitive for many modern media broadcasting like YouTube videos.

That's what gave push for the wide spread use of royalty free music. Allowing YouTubers to pay once (i.e. flat rate) for the right to use a piece of music many times, in a variety of ways and in multiple media formats makes such licenses workable for YouTubers.

Restrictions on Royalty Free Music:

So all this makes sense. We pay once and use it many time and in many ways. But, of course, it's not that simple. There are restrictions. You see ... there is not just one royalty free license. The term "royalty free" describes a type of license, but each copyright holder is perfectly within his/her right to craft a unique license agreement. And, of course, they do. With the exception of standardized royalty free licenses such as the ones by Creative Commons, licenses differ across companies, services, websites and creators. Never assume that just because you've downloaded music from YouTube's audio library, that you understand what other music distribution websites have in their license agreement.

For example, you've used YouTube's audio library (royalty free music) to download music for incorporation into sponsored videos. Great ... but if you now downloaded music from the royalty free library of, you'd violate copyright laws because MobyGratis does not permit usage of its music in commercial videos.

If you've previously redistributed music you received from YouTube's audio library (for free) on YouTube, your usage of royalty free music from PremiumBeat would constitute a copyright infringement. If you've used music from AudioBlocks you'd be fine if you never mentioned your source of music. On the other hand, if downloaded music from BenSound, you'd be violating a CreativeCommons license if you failed to properly provide attribution (or credits).

And ... just because the music is old (like classical) does not mean that its royalty free. Like we discussed above, the composition might be in the public domain so anyone can perform, record and broadcast his performance of Mozart's Violin Sonatas without having to pay royalties to Mozart's heirs. But an actual live performance or recording of the Sonatas by a musician is copyrighted to that musician. The performance is not in the public domain. Using a musician's specific performance of Mozart's composition in your video would violate copyright laws ... unless you acquire the proper license.

So ... by all means, find the perfect piece of music under a royalty free license, but make sure to research the exact license you will be issued as part of your payment. Each license is different. Each one provides you with specific rights. Each one holds you to different rules. Each one restricts you differently. Remember ... You are not buying music. You will not own the music. All you're receiving, anytime you "purchase" music, is a license. A license, or a limited right, to use the music in very specific ways. So make sure that you can use it on YouTube the exact way you intend.


Lior Leser, Esq.
Technology, Internet and Software Law

CALL ME: 888.700.2993