Music Licensing 101: The Difference Between a Public Performance License and a Synchronization License

Music licensing is not rocket science, but it is also not intuitive.  If your company shares music externally on the internet, in an advertisement or at a conference, it’s very likely that the use of that music requires a license.  And even if your company is sharing music only within the organization, there may still be a music licensing requirement.

One of the first steps in understanding music licensing is knowing the difference between a song and a sound recording. 

A recorded song has two separate copyrights:

  1. There is a copyright in the song, which consists of a melody and any accompanying lyrics.
  2. There is a separate copyright in the sound recording, which is the recorded rendition of the song.

*Typically, but not always, there will be separate owners for the song and for the sound recording.  The song copyright is normally owned by the songwriter or the songwriter’s music publishing company, and the sound recording is generally owned by the record label that released that recording.

Here’s where it gets a little bit tricky, because the same song can have multiple sound recordings.

An Example: “I Will Always Love You.”

Dolly Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You” in 1973, and several different artists have their own renditions of it, including Dolly Parton, Whitney Houston and Kenny Rogers. Dolly Parton owns the song copyright for “I Will Always Love You” through her music publishing company.

But with respect to the sound recording, there are different owners. The record label that released Whitney Houston’s rendition of the song in 1992 owns her sound recording. Kenny Rogers’ label owns his rendition of the song.

Related Reading: Music Licensing: What is Considered Fair Use?

Music Licensing for Public Performances

Public Performance Licenses give permission to perform music in public.

The public performance of a song almost always requires a license.  In contrast, the license requirement to perform a sound recording in public are more limited, applicable typically only when the sound recording public performance is offered via the internet or via other digital means.  For these purposes, I’m talking only about performance licenses for songs.

If you play a song in a retail store, at a conference or in a restaurant, those are public performances of the song regardless of whether you render the performance by a live band, by a CD, by a DJ, or by your smartphone. That performance requires a public performance license.

Most public performance licenses are issued by one of the performing rights organizations (PRO).  In the United States, they are:

  • BMI
  • GMR (Relatively new, established in 2013.)

Each PRO controls a different catalog of songs.  Typically, the PRO will issue blanket licenses, allowing you to publicly perform any of the songs in that PRO’s catalog.

Going back to “I Will Always Love You,” let’s suppose you want to do a public performance of the song at your company’s trade booth on a tradeshow floor. You would need a public performance license from the copyright holder of the song. That song’s copyright holder, again, is Dolly Parton through her music publishing company, Velvet Apple Music.  Velvet Apple Music is affiliated with BMI for their public rights licensing needs.  So, if you have the appropriate blanket license from BMI, you can publicly perform “I Will Always Love You” as well as the other 8.5 million songs in BMI’s catalog.

The PROs make it easy to get public performance licenses.  ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC have online presences where you can determine the specific license that you need and pay for it right online.

Music Licensing for Videos & Presentations

Suppose again you wanted to use “I Will Always Love You” in a new company promotional video. You would need a sync license for the song.  Again, the copyright holder of the song is Dolly Parton’s Velvet Apple Music publishing company. You would need to approach Velvet Apple Music directly to request and obtain the sync license.

Let’s say you obtain the sync license for “I Will Always Love You.” You then need a master use license to cover the use of the specific recording of “I Will Always Love You” that you decide to use.  If you choose Whitney Houston’s 1992 sound recording performance, you need to approach the holder of the copyright in that sound recording (which at the time of release was Sony BMG), and request the master use license.

Related eBook: 5 Ways You Should Be Using Music at Work

Music Licensing for Other Uses

There’s not a specific name for every different way in which a company might use music.  For example, there’s no specific name for using music in your training materials. But, if you were to use music in training materials, the licensing process would be much like the licensing process you would go through for a use in a video, since you would need licenses in both the song and the sound recording.

Learn more about music licensing:

Click here to learn more about APM Music’s licensing options.

Author: Joy Butler

Joy R. Butler is an attorney and author with over twenty years of experience counseling clients on business, licensing, technology, and media matters. Through her Washington, DC-based private law firm practice, she provides transactional and advisory services primarily to mid-market companies and small businesses. Ms. Butler excels at explaining complicated legal issues in understandable terms and proposing practical solutions to business problems. Her writings relevant to music licensing include The Permission Seeker's Guide Through the Legal Jungle: Clearing Copyrights, Trademarks and Other Rights for Entertainment and Media Productions, recently updated and expanded for 2017. She has also authored books on internet law and contests and sweepstakes law and regularly blogs on intellectual property, media, and licensing issues at Ms. Butler is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Harvard College.
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