6 Types of Music Licenses

By granting permission to someone who wishes to use their work, music licenses are the primary way artists can receive royalties. There are six kinds of licenses that people can use for various purposes. They are the synchronization license, the mechanical license, the master license, the public performance license, the print right license, and the theatrical license.

From sheet music reproductions to theater productions to motion pictures and jukeboxes, original works can be used for a variety of purposes. In order to use copyrighted material, an individual needs to obtain a music license from the author. 

Generally speaking, if you use a song (not your own) for something that other people will hear, you need a music license. Use and term rights will be included in this license, which determines how the song can be used. Read more about the rights of music usage here and about the rights of music copyright here.

The six main types of music licenses are listed below, along with how they’re used.

1. Synchronization License (Sync License)

The synchronization license is an agreement between a music user and the owner of a copyrighted composition (song) that grants permission to release the song in a video format (YouTube, DVDs, Blue-ray discs). It is also known as synchronization rights, synch rights, or sync permissions.

A synchronization license pays a royalty to the owner of the composition (song). The composer or publisher usually owns this license. The rights can sometimes be sold, however. An original composer or publisher of a song could no longer own the synchronization rights to a song if the rights are sold. Thus, it is vital to identify the current copyright holders before requesting synchronization.

People are not always aware that what most people think of as a “song” is actually composed of two parts: the composition (music notes and lyrics), and the original recorded audio (musicians playing the song, created by the artists). Artists and composers are often the same people, but not always. Songs can be owned by multiple entities.

2. Mechanical License

Music users and owners of copyrighted compositions (songs) can enter into a mechanical license which allows for releasing the songs in audio-only formats (interactive audio streams, digital downloads, CDs, vinyl). These rights are sometimes referred to as mechanical rights.

Mechanic licenses pay royalties to the copyright holder (owner) of the composition (song). Typically, this is the composer or their publisher. Sometimes, mechanical rights change hands when they are sold. An original composer or publisher may not own mechanical rights of a song if they are sold. 

3. Master License

The holder of a master license can use recorded music in a media project such as a film, TV show, commercial, or other visual creation or audio project. Master licenses are obtained from the person who owns the recording, usually the party that financed it. Record labels usually hold these rights rather than independent artists.

Obtaining a master license is only the first step, as synchronization or sync licenses are also needed to utilize the track in full. Unlike a sync license, which provides the right to re-record a song for use in a media project, a master license permits the use of a previously recorded song in a media project.

You can negotiate the return of master ownership to you after a set period of time when signing a record deal. Typically, an album lasts one to three years before an artist releases the next, so you can request ownership reversion after perhaps two to five years.

4. Public Performance License

In a public performance license, permission is granted to a music user to perform a song in public, online, or on the radio. This permission is also referred to as public performance rights, performance rights, or performing rights.

In the United States, public performance licenses pay a royalty to the owner of the composition (song). A composer or a publisher is usually the owner. Rights can sometimes be sold. A song may not have the original composer or publisher as its owner if public performance rights are sold. 

In the United States, public performance royalties are collected by three agencies: ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. You pay a license fee based on a number of variables, which are determined by these agencies. 

These agencies also determine the amount that composers and copyright holders get paid. A pool of collected royalties is split among the member composers based on the number of plays they receive.

5. Print Rights License

An agreement between a music user and the owner of a copyrighted composition (song) that allows for the rearrangement, printing, or displaying of the song’s music notes or lyrics is known as a print license. It is also called a print right.

A print license provides royalty payments to the composition’s owner (copyright holder). Composers or publishers typically hold print licenses. Rights may, however, be sold. It is possible for a song to have a new owner, other than the original composer or publisher after the print rights have been sold. If you wish to request a print, you should find out who holds the copyright.

Before distribution, you must secure a print license. As they are hard to come by, we suggest requesting them many months before your anticipated release date.

6. Theatrical License

Play, musical, dance, opera, narration, or another dramatic performance, a theatrical license is an agreement between a music user and the owner of a copyrighted composition (song). Also known as theatrical rights or grand rights, this permission is granted by the government.

Theatre licenses pay a royalty to the owner of the composition (song). Usually, this is the composer or their publisher. Sometimes, rights are sold. Songs may end up in the hands of someone other than their original composer or publisher if theatrical rights are sold.

Any public display of the production must obtain a theatrical license. It is best to submit your theatrical rights request many months before the anticipated production date, because theatrical rights can be difficult to obtain.

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