The first thing to note about copyright law in the music industry, is that several elements of a song each have their own copyright, that often belong to different owners. The master recording rights typically belong to the artist or the record label, which relate to the specific sound recording, while the lyrical and musical compositions can also be protected and referred to as the publishing rights. These should belong to the author or artist, but their interests are likely to be represented by the publisher who collects fees on their behalf.

Each owner of the copyright is entitled to prevent others from carrying out certain acts, such as copying “a substantial part” of the work,[1] and performing, showing, adapting or communicating it to the public by other forms of broadcast [2]. This means you can’t infringe copyright by private use, as the rights in the recording you own are exhausted once it has been distributed, and you won’t infringe if you use the work in the “course of activities of educational establishment[3].

But for the majority of uses, you will probably need a license, which is a contractual agreement, allowing the licensee to perform one, or several, of these infringing acts. Their effect will be limited to a certain length of time, or only apply for a particular use, so it is important to check the terms, and know what type of license you need!

1. Master Recording License – allows the licensee to use a protected sound recording from another artist e.g. for compilation albums.

2. Mechanical License – allows the licensee to copy the song. These relate to the publishing rights so are needed to print CD’s or perform cover songs.

3. Public Performance License – allows the licensee to perform the protected work “publicly”, which includes audibly available background music in offices and waiting rooms, as well as radio broadcasts.

4. Sync License – allows the licensee to use the protected work in combination with another visual medium. This is usually video, such as for songs played in adverts, TV series or movie soundtracks.

5. Print License – allows the licensee to copy lyrics or sheet music e.g. song books or lyric websites.

6. Compulsory License – is the only type that does not need prior consent from the rights owner. This is where the licensee is able to pay a set statutory fee, but they are typically more expensive, and so are used for large scale projects e.g. digital or TV broadcasts, jukeboxes. N.B. this is a type of functionality that can be combined with other types of license such as a compulsory mechanical license.

Licensing is normally arranged through Performing Rights Organisations (PRO’s) or Copyright Collecting Agencies, which act as intermediaries between the rights holders and licensees, to collect royalties and other fees. These will depend on the country you are in, and where you wish to carry out the potentially infringing acts.

In the US, artists can choose which PRO they wish to represent them, including corporate giants such as BMI, ASCAP and SESAC. Historically in the UK however, artists have only been able to register with the Performing Rights Society (PRS) and Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL). PRS protected the rights of composers, songwriters and publishers while PPL represented performers and record producers.

This has changed since 2008, when the EU Commission ruled that the monopolies were anticompetitive, allowing many independent companies to offer the same royalty management services.[4] So if you are in doubt as to what license you need, make sure to check with the relevant PRO if not the rights owners themselves.

We plan to publish further articles about the specific legalities of playing music at venues, as well as performing cover songs and using music samples electronically. But for many of the musicians reading this post, I imagine you may first be wondering “Well is my music protected by copyright? Should I be registered with one of these PRO’s?”  We will endeavour to clarify this issue in upcoming posts.


1. Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (CDPA) 1988 s.16(3)
2. CDPA 1988 s.16(1)
3. CDPA 1988 s.34
4. C.F. Radbill, ‘Introduction to the Music Industry: An Entrepreneurial Approach, Second Edition’ (Routledge 2016) ch.6