As a video maker, you may wonder if you can use copyrighted music in your videos if you are not making money. Whether you’re creating a YouTube video or uploading an Instagram story, this is an important question to consider.
As a general rule, you must get permission to use copyrighted music in your project, regardless of how much money a project makes. Projects that are not making money must still get permission to use copyrighted music.
If you are in a position where you want to use copyrighted music in your project but have a zero budget, there are ways to get excellent quality copyrighted music without the risk of breaking the law.
In this article, I will share how you can use copyrighted music for free. I am not a music attorney, so you should not take this article as legal advice.
I want to share what I have learned as a music copyright owner and creator, covering the following:
- Can I use copyrighted music if I don’t make money?
- Can I use copyrighted music if I give credit?
- How can I use copyrighted music without paying?
- Can I use a song on YouTube if I don’t monetise it?
- What happens if they catch you using copyrighted material?
- Is “incidental music use” breaking copyright law?
Can I Use Copyrighted Music If I Don’t Make Money?
In order to fully understand the implications of using copyrighted music without permission or payment, we must first understand what copyright law is and how it applies to us as creators.
Copyright law protects intellectual property by giving authors exclusive rights over their original works for a period. This means that no one else may copy, distribute, or perform the work without permission from the copyright holder.
There is a false assumption, particularly among beginner filmmakers, that using copyrighted music is okay when there is no profit-making involved. This is not true.
Typically, you must have permission from the music copyright holder in order to use copyrighted music in your content, whether your content is monetised or not. Not-for-profit content must still have the correct music licence permissions.
You might know somebody who is using copyrighted music and “getting away with it”, but in reality, this is a breach of copyright law if that person:
- Does not have permission from the music copyright holder.
- Does not qualify under any of the “fair use” guidelines.
Media platforms such as YouTube & Instagram use advanced bots and algorithms to scan hundreds of hours of video per hour and identify music snippets. These bots are picking up on illegally used music and, as a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult for individuals to get away with using copyrighted music without permission.
In this digital music age, don’t take the risk and always:
- Ensure you have permission from the music copyright holder before using a piece of music.
- Can prove to anyone who asks that you have permission to use the music. This can be done by getting a license agreement in writing from the music supplier.
Can I Use Copyrighted Music If I Give Credit?
There is a common misconception that if you give credit to a musical artist or composer, you can use their copyrighted music. This is not true.
Giving music credit to a music artist does not make you exempt from copyright infringement. You must always have permission from the music artist before using their copyrighted music.
Although it is always really great to tell everyone who performed or created the music you are using, this is not the same as getting permission.
How Can I Use Copyrighted Music Without Paying?
There are two easy and legal ways to use copyrighted music without paying.
First, you can use some of the many free royalty-free music libraries that distribute free music that can be used in videos and other content.
To gain access to the YouTube Audio library, you must have a YouTube creator’s account and the music can only be used on the YouTube platform.
Can I Use A Song In YouTube If I Don’t Monetise It?
You must always have permission to use a song on YouTube regardless of whether you monetise it.
Even if you are not monetising your videos and only using copyrighted music for personal entertainment, there is still a chance that you could get a copyright strike on YouTube for the unauthorised usage of someone else’s work.
Of course, there are exceptions under the law of fair use, however, this is a grey area. In a nutshell, you must always have permission to use a copyrighted song on YouTube.
If you are concerned, it is best to stick to music from the YouTube Audio Library or check out independent music suppliers such as Coya Music, as we allow the use of our music as background music in videos on YouTube.
What Happens If They Catch You Using Copyrighted Material?
What happens as a result of getting caught using copyrighted music without permission will vary depending on the situation.
Typically, the following consequences may result due to copyright infringement:
- You may have to pay monetary damages.
- You may have to give the copyright holder your profits.
- You may have to destroy the material in which you used the music illegally.
Of course, how severe and costly this is will depend on individual cases, but according to the copyright infringement penalties listed by Purdue University, the law provides a range from $200 to $150,000 for each work infringed. [source]
In addition, the person in breach of copyright law will have to pay for all legal and court fees.
Here in the UK, the government’s Citizens Advice for Scotland gives some excellent information and examples for calculating financial compensation for online copyright infringement. Here is a link to this Citizens Advice site.
Is Incidental Music Use Breaking Copyright Law?
Picking up incidental music when filming on location can be a big concern for filmmakers.
Imagine that you are making a video for YouTube and are at a local park filming. Then a car pulls up with the windows down and Taylor Swift’s latest music was booming from their car speakers. Parts of this music will end up being recorded in your film. This is incidental music.
You never intended this music to feature in your film, but now you are stuck with it unless you re-film or do some fancy sound editing.
Some may argue that this music comes under the terms of fair use, as you never intended to capture this music. The film has nothing to do with this music and it only features for a small amount of time in the background.
However, as with all “fair use” terms in music, this is a grey area and they could debate this in court.
In this situation, you may have to take a balanced approach and assess the risk that this incidental music poses to your content.
In this example, given that you plan to upload to YouTube, and the song is by Taylor Swift, who is a major well-known artist, this incidental music will most likely be picked up by the YouTube Content ID bots and you will receive a copyright strike.
For me personally, incidentally, picking up well-known music is too much of a risk and in this situation, I would process the sound and remove it. You will need to complete your own risk assessment to make the call.
When it comes to using copyrighted music in content, it is important to remember that you must always have permission to use the music from the copyright holder, regardless of whether your content is being monetised or not.
Before adding any songs to your projects, make sure that either (1) you have received explicit permission from the copyright holder; (2) the song has been released under Creative Commons and you agree to the terms; or (3) your usage falls under fair use guidelines.
If none of these criteria applies, then chances are it would be best to avoid using the song altogether in order to prevent any potential legal issues down the line.