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How to Know if a Song is Copyrighted For Use on YouTube

by | Oct 1, 2023

You don’t need to be a YouTuber for a long time to realize that music is important, and you can’t use any song you like for any reason. You might have even learned this the hard way by getting a copyright claim. It’s that little message that tells you that you can’t make money from your video because it has copyrighted music. Knowing how to find out if a song is copyrighted can save you time, money, and the trouble of dealing with a claim. So, How to Know if a Song is Copyrighted?

How to Know if a Song is Copyrighted For Use on YouTube?

Determining if a song is copyrighted and requires permission for use can be a bit complex, but here are some steps you can take to assess the copyright status of a song:

1. Determine Whether the Song is in the “Public Domain” or Has a “Creative Commons License”

Copyright law grants exclusive rights to the creators of original works, including music. This means that unless a song is in the public domain or explicitly released under a Creative Commons license, it is likely copyrighted.

Determine Whether the Song is in the “Public Domain” or Has a “Creative Commons License”
  • The public domain refers to works that are no longer protected by copyright or never had copyright protection. In the context of songs, if a song is in the public domain, it means that anyone can use, perform, or modify that song without needing permission from the original creator.
  • A Creative Commons license, on the other hand, is a type of license that creators can apply to their works to grant certain permissions to others while still retaining some rights. Creative Commons licenses vary in their terms and conditions, but they generally allow others to use the work under certain conditions specified by the license.

To determine whether a song is in the public domain or has a Creative Commons license, you can follow these steps:

  • Research the song’s age: Find out when the song was first published. If the song was published before 1923, it is likely in the public domain in the United States.
  • Check for Creative Commons licenses: Visit the Creative Commons website at creativecommons.org. Use their search function to look for the song or artist. If the song or artist is associated with a Creative Commons license, it will be specified in the search results. Read the terms of the Creative Commons license to understand the permissions and restrictions.
  • Look for copyright information: Check the song’s credits, liner notes, or the artist’s official website for copyright information. Artists may explicitly state if their work is released under a Creative Commons license or in the public domain. Look for indications such as “public domain,” “CC-BY,” “CC-BY-NC,” etc.
  • Consult copyright databases and resources: The U.S. Copyright Office’s online catalog provides information on copyright registrations. Search for the song or artist’s name to see if there are any copyright registrations or records.
  • Seek legal advice if needed: If you’re uncertain about the copyright status, consult an intellectual property attorney for guidance. Attorneys can provide legal advice tailored to your specific situation and help you navigate copyright law.

2. Research the song’s age 

Researching the age of a song is a helpful step in determining its copyright status. Copyright laws differ from country to country, but generally, they establish a duration of protection for creative works. 

How to Know if a Song is Copyrighted

Here’s a breakdown of the explanation:

  • Copyright protection duration: Copyright protection is not indefinite. It lasts for a specific period of time, after which the work enters the public domain and can be freely used by anyone. The duration of copyright protection varies based on factors such as the type of work and the country where it was created or published.
  • Song published before 1923: In many countries, including the United States, works that were published before a certain date are considered to be in the public domain. In the case of songs, if a song was published before 1923, it is often assumed to be in the public domain. This means that you can use, perform, or modify the song without needing permission from the original creator.
  • Songs published after 1923: For songs published after 1923, the copyright status is more complex. Copyright protection for these songs may still be in effect. The duration of copyright varies depending on the country. In the United States, for example, copyright protection generally lasts for the life of the author plus an additional number of years (often 70 years after the author’s death). So, if a song was published after 1923, it is more likely that copyright is still in effect, and you would need to obtain permission from the copyright owner to use it.
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3. Identify the song’s author and publisher

Determine who owns the copyright to the song. This information can usually be found in the song credits, liner notes, or through Performing Rights Organizations such as ASCAP, BMI, or the Copyright Office

  • Song credits and liner notes: When songs are released on albums, singles, or other media formats, they often include song credits and liner notes. These credits typically list the names of the song’s authors, including the songwriter(s), composer(s), and other contributors involved in creating the song. Additionally, the liner notes may provide information about the publisher(s) associated with the song.
  • Performing rights organizations (PROs): PROs such as ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) are entities that manage the performance rights and collect royalties on behalf of songwriters, composers, and music publishers. They maintain databases that contain information about copyrighted songs and their owners. You can search these databases online to find details about the song’s author(s), publisher(s), and copyright ownership.
  • Copyright Office: In the United States, the Copyright Office is responsible for registering copyrights and maintaining a public record of copyright registrations. While not all copyrighted works are registered, searching the Copyright Office’s online catalog can provide valuable information about copyright ownership. You may find registrations that include details about the song’s author(s) and publisher(s).

By examining the song credits, liner notes, or utilizing online resources like PRO databases and the Copyright Office, you can gather information about the song’s creators and copyright owners. This information will help you in determining who holds the copyright to the song and who you need to contact for obtaining permission to use it.

4. Check licensing databases 

As mentioned earlier in this article, Performing rights organizations (PROs) are entities that manage the licensing and collection of royalties for public performances of music. Here’s an explanation of how to check licensing databases and why it’s important:

  • ASCAP, BMI, SESAC: ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.), and SESAC (Society of European Stage Authors and Composers) are the three major PROs in the United States. These organizations represent a large catalog of musical works and administer licenses on behalf of songwriters, composers, and music publishers.
  • Online databases: PROs maintain online databases that allow you to search for songs and determine if they are represented by a PRO. These databases often provide information on the copyright owners, publishers, and the specific rights administered by each PRO.
  • Public performance licenses: When a song is represented by a PRO, it means the PRO has been authorized by the copyright owner to license the song for public performances. Public performances include playing the song at live venues, on radio and television broadcasts, in businesses, and through digital streaming services.
  • Obtaining a license: If you plan to publicly perform a song that is represented by a PRO, you will likely need to obtain a license from the respective PRO. The license grants you the legal right to perform the song publicly and ensures that the copyright owner receives appropriate royalties for such performances.

It’s important to note that the licensing process and requirements may vary depending on the specific PRO and the intended use of the song. It’s advisable to consult the PRO’s website or contact them directly to understand the licensing process and any associated fees.

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Checking licensing databases maintained by PROs helps you determine if a song is represented by a PRO and whether you need to obtain a license for public use. This ensures that you comply with copyright laws and properly compensate the copyright owners for the use of their works.

5. Use copyright databases

Determining if a song is copyrighted and requires permission for use on platforms like YouTube is important to avoid copyright infringement. Here’s an explanation of how to use copyright databases to assess the copyright status of a song:

  • Copyright databases: Copyright databases are resources that contain information about registered copyrights and copyright claims. One prominent example is the U.S. Copyright Office’s online catalog, which allows you to search for copyright registrations.
  • U.S. Copyright Office’s online catalog: The U.S. Copyright Office maintains an online catalog that provides a record of copyright registrations in the United States. By searching this catalog, you can find information about whether a song has been registered with the Copyright Office.
  • Copyright registration: Copyright registration is a process by which copyright owners can officially register their works with the Copyright Office. While copyright protection exists automatically upon the creation of an original work, registering the copyright provides additional legal benefits and evidence of ownership.
  • Copyright claims: In some cases, even if a song is not formally registered with the Copyright Office, there may be copyright claims or disputes associated with it. These claims can arise from the original creator, publishers, or other parties asserting ownership or control over the song.
  • Additional evidence: While copyright registration is not required for copyright protection, it can serve as additional evidence of ownership. If you find a copyright registration for a song in the database, it can support the claim that the song is copyrighted and protected.

It’s important to note that not all copyrighted works are registered with the Copyright Office. Therefore, the absence of a registration in the database does not necessarily mean the song is not copyrighted. However, a copyright registration can provide stronger evidence of ownership.

When using copyrighted songs on platforms like YouTube, it’s generally advisable to obtain proper permissions or licenses from the copyright owner to avoid potential copyright infringement. Consulting legal resources or seeking professional advice can provide more specific guidance on copyright issues related to YouTube and other platforms.

6. Seek legal advice if needed

Seeking legal advice is a prudent step if you have uncertainties regarding the copyright status of a song or if you intend to use the song on platforms like YouTube, especially for commercial or public purposes. Here’s an explanation of why seeking legal advice can be beneficial:

  • Expert guidance: Intellectual property attorneys specialize in copyright law and can provide you with accurate and up-to-date information regarding copyright regulations and requirements. They have the expertise to analyze your specific situation and provide tailored advice.
  • Clarification of copyright status: Determining the copyright status of a song can sometimes be complex, especially if the song is not well-known or if there are ambiguous rights holders. An attorney can conduct a thorough investigation into the copyright ownership, registrations, licenses, and any potential copyright claims associated with the song.
  • Advice on permissions and licenses: If the song is copyrighted and requires permission for use, an attorney can guide you on the appropriate steps to obtain the necessary permissions or licenses. They can help you understand the specific rights you need to acquire and assist you in negotiating agreements with the copyright owner or their representatives.
  • Risk assessment: Legal counsel can assess the risks associated with using a copyrighted song without proper authorization. They can help you understand the potential consequences of copyright infringement, including legal disputes, financial penalties, content takedowns, and damage to your reputation.
  • Compliance with copyright laws: An attorney can ensure that your use of the song aligns with copyright laws and regulations, helping you avoid unintentional infringement. They can guide you on best practices, fair use considerations, and the specific rules that apply to your jurisdiction.
  • Tailored advice for your situation: Every situation is unique, and general information may not cover all aspects of your specific case. By consulting with an attorney, you can receive personalized advice that takes into account your specific circumstances, goals, and concerns.
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While seeking legal advice incurs costs, it can provide valuable protection and guidance in navigating copyright issues. Attorneys can help you understand your rights and obligations, mitigate risks, and ensure compliance with copyright laws, ultimately safeguarding you from potential legal consequences.

Different Types of Creative Commons Licenses

Creative Commons licenses provide a standardized way for creators to grant permissions for their works beyond what traditional copyright allows. Here are the different types of Creative Commons licenses:

Different Types of Creative Commons Licenses
  • Attribution (CC-BY): This license allows others to distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon the original work, even commercially, as long as they give credit to the original creator.
  • Attribution-ShareAlike (CC-BY-SA): This license permits others to remix, tweak, and build upon the original work, even commercially, as long as they credit the original creator and license their new work under the same terms.
  • Attribution-NoDerivs (CC-BY-ND): This license allows others to redistribute the original work, even commercially, but they cannot remix, tweak, or build upon it. They must give credit to the original creator.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial (CC-BY-NC): This license permits others to remix, tweak, and build upon the original work non-commercially. They must give credit to the original creator.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC-BY-NC-SA): This license allows others to remix, tweak, and build upon the original work non-commercially, as long as they credit the original creator and license their new work under the same terms.
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC-BY-NC-ND): This is the most restrictive Creative Commons license. It allows others to download and share the original work non-commercially, but they cannot change it in any way or use it commercially. They must give credit to the original creator.

Each Creative Commons license specifies different permissions and restrictions, and it’s important to review the specific license terms for the work you are interested in using. The Creative Commons website (creativecommons.org) provides more detailed information about each license type and offers a tool to generate license icons and legal code for easy implementation.

Artists who Release their Work under Creative Commons Licenses

There are many artists who choose to release their work under Creative Commons licenses. Here are a few examples of such artists:

  • Nine Inch Nails: Trent Reznor, the frontman of Nine Inch Nails, has released several albums under Creative Commons licenses. For example, the instrumental album “Ghosts I-IV” was released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA) license, allowing fans to remix and share the music for non-commercial purposes.
Nine Inch Nails
  • Amanda Palmer: Amanda Palmer, known for her work as a solo artist and as part of The Dresden Dolls, has released music and other creative works under Creative Commons licenses. She has used licenses such as Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA) to encourage sharing and remixing of her music.
Amanda Palmer
  • Jonathan Coulton: Jonathan Coulton is an indie singer-songwriter who has gained popularity for his humorous and geeky songs. He has released many of his songs under Creative Commons licenses, allowing fans to use and share his music under certain conditions.
Jonathan Coulton
  • C418: Daniel Rosenfeld, known by his stage name C418, is a German musician and composer who is best known for creating the music for the popular video game Minecraft. He has released his music under Creative Commons licenses, allowing fans to use it in their own projects with proper attribution.
C418
  • Josh Woodward: Josh Woodward is an independent singer-songwriter who has released his entire discography under Creative Commons licenses. He offers a variety of licenses, including Attribution (CC BY), allowing others to freely use and share his music as long as they credit him.
Josh Woodward

These are just a few examples of artists who have embraced Creative Commons licenses to enable sharing, remixing, and collaboration with their creative works. Creative Commons licenses provide a way for artists to connect with their fans and foster a culture of openness and creativity.

Conclusion

In conclusion, to know if a song is copyrighted and requires permission for use on platforms like YouTube is crucial to avoid copyright infringement. By following these steps and ensuring proper permissions or licenses, you can navigate copyright laws and use songs appropriately in your YouTube videos while respecting the rights of copyright owners.

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