Using Copyrighted Music in Videos: Everything You Should Know

In the traditional creative space, copyright law has always had its gray areas. When we consider the online space, where 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every day, … well… it’s chaos. But regardless of how vast the internet is, it’s not so easy to break copyright laws and get away with it. Platforms such as YouTube have programs that scan uploaded content and flag anything in violation. Also, it’s unfair to music creators if we use their material outside of the rights we are granted. Just like you, they’ve put hard work into their creations, and that should be respected.

If you’re looking to avoid violating copyright law, the first step is to know what the laws are. In this video by YouTube Creators, Glove and Boots give us a breakdown of some copyright regulations.

As a content creator, here are the types of music audios available for your use.

How to Use Music in Your Videos

There are two methods to using music in your videos. The first is clear and direct: create your own music. If the songs belong to you, then you have the freedom to use them however you like. This isn’t always practical, though. Not all content creators have the time or talent to make their own music.

Which leads us to the second option; find music that is authorized to use. This is where we get into murky waters because authorization isn’t clear cut. Every copyright owner has the freedom to make their own ‘rules’. This means that you shouldn’t use the rules of one song to refer to another. Here are the options available.

Use Public Domain Music

Some songs are a part of what is known as the public domain. This means that their rights have either expired, or the creator released them as free for the public. In simple words, they have no copyright. In the US, the Public Domain Information Project (PDIF) provides all the need-to-knows on this topic. It states that any musical work created and published in 1922 or earlier in the US is public domain. Since YouTube is based in the US, this policy is recognized by them. If you confirm that a song is in the public domain, then you are free to use it in your video.

Use Royalty-Free Music

Royalty-free music is the most preferred option for YouTube content creators. It is NOT always free to use, so don’t be confused by the tag. Artists who create royalty-free music allow content creators to purchase the right to use their music within some limitations.

Some artists sell a ‘one-time-use’ right, while others sell a repeat use right. Some artists will require that you only use their music for non-revenue videos. Some artists will give the rights to their music for free in exchange for credit. Royalty-free rights are not one-size-fits-all. You should consider each song carefully before using them.

Royalty-free is recommended because it reduces the legal responsibilities of using copyright work. Artists who make royalty-free music want creators to use their songs. They also make their demands clear to avoid any hassle. Many of them put their songs on platforms such as Epidemic Sound, where you can access and use over 30,000 songs for $15/month. Here are some other top sites to find royalty-free music.

*Top-recommended sources for royalty-free music:

Explore Fair-Use Options

In some cases, you can use copyright music without the owner’s permission. However, this is the least advised route to take. Fair use grants creators the use of music work for educational purposes, news reporting, or any other information-based context.

If you completely transform a song, such as sampling or making a parody, it can also be considered fair use. But the copyright owner can still contest your use of their songs, especially if you’re making a profit off it (that should be going to them). Using small bits of a song in this context may also be considered fair use rather than using large portions. However, this can also be contested.

For such a complex option, many YouTubers choose to bet on fair-use. In reality, you probably need legal advice to successfully add music to your videos under fair-use. We see a lot of content creators who think their actions fall under fair use, but are actually in violation. Here are the common misconceptions about fair use. YouTube will not fail to penalize your channel if you are caught in violation.

Misconceptions About Fair Use

As long as I credit the artist or copyright owner, I’m within fair use.

No, you’re not. Unless an artist clearly states that their song can be used in exchange for credit, you are violating their copyright. What you’ve primarily done is to upload their work without their knowledge and permission. Even if you include a footnote saying, “All credit goes to XYZ” or “I do not own XYZ.” Under fair use, you can only use credit if you’ve entirely transformed that creative work as a cover or parody. In that case, you can credit the original source of inspiration for your version.

I’m only using it for entertainment. I won’t place any ads or make any profit, so that’s fair use.

Remember that the grounds for fair use are educative purposes. Anything else can be contested. If the owner of the copyrighted music takes the case to court, this defense will not apply. Unless the artist or copyright owner states that their work can be used for non-profit, it is not fair use.

If I place a disclaimer and make it clear that I don’t own this song, then it’s fair use.

Just like credit attribution, a disclaimer will not change copyright enforcement. The artist or copyright owner can still contest your use of their work.

If I change some elements in the song, then it becomes fair use.

The fair use law states that you have to completely transform content before it can qualify as fair use. For music, this includes voice, instrumentals, and possibly lyrics. If you can do all of this, then you may be eligible for the fair use cover. But remember that the copyright owner could still contest your use, especially if you’re making a profit that should be going to them.

How Sharing Music Could Be Considered Stealing

If you share a lot of things with your audience, then you probably want to share some of your favorite songs with them too. But the way you share could put your channel in violation of copyright laws. If you upload a link to their song on your social media or YouTube page, that’s a great way to share. Anyone who clicks on the link would be taken to a platform where they can stream or buy the song. All the impressions and profit from your sharing goes to the artist.

However, if you decide to play a clip of the song (or all of it) in a video, that could be considered as stealing. You’ve taken away the artist’s ability to measure how many people listened, and their ability to monetize those listens. If you place ads on that video, you’ve also profited off someone else’s creative work. In this case, legal action could be taken against you.

How YouTube Finds Copyright Violations

Photo by Kon Karampelas

YouTube relies on its business partners and creators to make revenue. As a result, the issue of copyright violation is one that they’ve invested time and money into tackling. One reason is that they need creators to keep posting content without the fear of being ripped off. Another is that YouTube could be the target of countless lawsuits from creators whose material are copied (or illegally uploaded) through the platform.

To settle copyright violations, YouTube uses a Content ID system. Nearly all copyright disputes are solved using this system. The original content owners give YouTube audio or video files of their work. These files are converted into a digital ‘fingerprint’ and added to the system’s database. The Content ID bot roams through the YouTube server, comparing fingerprints to every byte of data uploaded. Once a match is found, the original content owner is notified and given options to take action.

The Content ID system works. There are several examples of creators trying to fool the system by speeding up their video, changing voice pitches, adding random elements, and so on. They eventually get caught. The only reason why some channels have not been flagged yet is that the system is not on a lookout for their particular content. If the original creator informs YouTube and adds their content to the system’s database, all channels in violation will be caught eventually.

What Happens When You Violate Copyright Laws

Once a copyright violation is identified, the copyright owner is notified. If this violation is found on YouTube, they are given three options to proceed:

  • Block the video
  • Monetize the video
  • Leave it up, and track the data

According to YouTube, most copyright owners choose to monetize the videos. This means that YouTube will place ads on your video, and all revenue earned will go to someone else. Even if you used a 30-second clip of their music in a 30-minute video. Copyright owners have been paid billions of dollars in ad revenue since Content ID was created.

Beyond the copyright owner, YouTube also has to take action. This comes as a strike, showing that you have violated their guidelines. After 3 strikes, your account will be removed. The copyright owner may also choose to bypass YouTube’s options and take you to court. None of these options present you with a ‘win’ situation, so it’s better to stay within set limits.

I really, really want to use one particular song in my video. How do I obtain copyright permission?

Some creators often face this dilemma. Maybe the public domain and royalty-free music simply don’t cut it. Or a piece of music is essential to the video you’re creating. In such scenarios, here’s the best course of action to take.

Find the Copyright Owner or Company

Music copyright could belong to the artist, record label, manager, publisher, or a combination of these people. It depends on the agreement made among them before the song was created. If a song was created for a particular movie or event, they could also share copyright ownership. You want to identify who owns the song, so you can reach out to them directly. ASCAP is the largest go-to source for this information. Contact information of the copyright owners is often included in the results.

Contact Them Directly Through Email

Draft a detailed explanation of who you are, how, and why you want to use their music in your video. You should make contact through email as you will have legally-admissible proof of any agreement you eventually make. If issues arise later, a spoken deal won’t be recognized in court.

If Given Permission, Fulfill All Obligations and Document

They may give you full permission, ask that you don’t monetize the video, ask for a portion of the profit if you do, and so on. The terms provided fully depends on the copyright owner. You should also be prepared to have your request dismissed. Some people or companies are just not interested in granting use rights. Save and backup data from any agreement made for future reference.

Don’t Exceed the Granted Rights

If you are given permission, stay within the rights permitted. Don’t use the song in more than one video if you are given single-use rights. If they ask that the video is not monetized, don’t sneak an ad in. Regardless of your previous agreement, the copyright owner can take you to court if you exceed the rights given. As long as you take their requirements seriously, you should have no problems.


It’s possible to find and use great music in your YouTube videos without violating the rules. Yes, you may need to do some additional research to find the best options. But the benefits of your efforts outweigh the consequences of being caught in violation. With the tools and services available to you, using copyright music in videos has never been easier.

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