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Music and Copyright: Recordings

Licensing for Recordings

Licensing for Recordings

A recording, for the purposes of licensing, includes any fixed media object, from physical manifestations (CDs, DVDs, LPs, etc.) to digital fixity (mp3, wav, mp4, mov, etc.). Any saved audio or video live stream is a recording. 

Recordings of copyrighted works must be licensed for distribution, both in a physical format or through an online platform. 

To date, there is no blanket mechanical or synchronization licensing available, as exists for live performance + synchronous stream. Works recorded must be licensed individually and for the specific circumstances of their distribution. 

Sound Recordings

To distribute a recording of a copyrighted musical work, a mechanical license must be obtained. This is required regardless of whether the recording is analog or digital. The Mechanical Licensing Collective Public Search and SongFile are both useful tools for identifying rights holders, and in some cases, starting the process of obtaining a mechanical license.

Mechanical Licensing Collective

The Mechanical Licensing Collective is a non-profit organization that administers blanket mechanical licensing for digital service providers (e.g., Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play) and distributes royalties to rights holders. The MCL has a publicly searchable database of musical works, which is a great tool for identifying the rights holders for a musical work. When searching the database, it is helpful to have not only the title of the work, but the WRITER's name(s). The name of the performer is less useful, as the writer of the work is searchable field, whereas recording artist is not.

Harry Fox Agency

The Harry Fox Agency administers mechanical licensing for the over 21 million works in its catalog. Their platform Songfile is used to administer licensing of recordings. To search the HFA catalog available in Songfile, you must register for an account.

Digital Distribution Companies

There are companies that provide packaged services that include licensing, pushing audio to various streaming platforms, and in some cases producing physical media. These digital distributors are not labels, so artists retain their copyright. Choosing a company to distribute a digital recording comes down to how each company structures its fees and services, and which is a best match for a particular artist or recording. Things to consider when selecting a digital distribution company can include:

  1. Subscription vs. one-time payment + royalties. The two primary models are either that the user sets up an account and subscribes to the service (usually annual fee) or they make a one-time, up-front payment for a recording to the company and the company takes a percentage of the royalties on the recording in perpetuity. 
  2. Distribution. Companies can have different distribution portfolios, or services that they work with to share your recordings. All services will distribute to platforms like Spotify, but it may be worthwhile to consider international markets where your recording could receive even more play than in the United States. It's worth looking at what markets and services a recording would reach that are atypical, but which could be advantageous. 
  3. Management. Digital distribution services provide information to users so they can track digital sales and streaming figures, but the responsibility for maintaining licensing and other costs that stem from usage are the responsibility of the user. It's worth looking at what information users are provided in order to manage their tracks. 

Video Recordings

Copyrighted music used in video recordings, including as background or as the focus of the recording (e.g., a recording of a live performance) requires a synchronization license. Where there are third party groups that provide sweeping services for mechanical licensing, sync licensing more often requires working with the rights holder (e.g., publisher, label, individual). 

Licensing for UI Performances

UI Licensing

Use this tool to determine how to license works for UI recordings that will be distributed online.