7 Tips for Using Copyrighted Music in Professional Videos & Slideshows

7 Tips for Using Copyrighted Music in Professional Videos & Slideshows

This legal video question comes form Malia Leinau Meyers of Malia Professional Photography, out of Kailua, Hawaii, concerning the use of copyrighted music in her video montages of photography work. Attorney Gordon P. Firemark explains what you need to know about copyright infringement, getting proper permissions, and licensing terms – all why keeping costs down and staying legal!

QUESTION: I have a question about the legality of adding music to online slideshows. I own a small photography business and I've recently decided to offer a slideshow of my clients' photographs. How would I add music to this without breaking the law?”

ANSWERS: In this post we discuss the legal implications of copyright and bring you 7 tips on how to use copyrighted music in your professional videos or slideshows:

  1. When You Don't Need Permission To Use Other's Music in Your Video
  2. Be Sure to Include Internet Rights with Music Licenses for Online Video
  3. Simply Giving The Recording Artist Label and Credit in Your Video Isn't Enough
  4. Performing a Cover Song In Your Online Video Requires Permissions As Well
  5. Music in your Computer Software Program May Not Be Allowed for Professional Use!
  6. "Educational" Videos Don't Get a Pass on Copyright Use
  7. Remixes May Not Be Allowed With 3rd Party Stock Audio Sites

Why are so many professional photographers and videographers using others' copyrighted music?

Malia raises a good question. There are a lot of professional photographers and videographers who like who like to use background music in their videos or other multimedia pieces, both in their portfolio websites, or 3rd party video sharing sites. They do this for obvious reasons such as promoting their own work, and giving their clients an enjoyable video experience.

What you need to be able to legally add copyrighted music, sound effects, or other copyrighted audio to your online video?

Please keep in mind that I am not a lawyer, and even where I am quoting a professional attorney in his field of expertise, everything in this article is for general informational purposes only. It should not be construed as, or substituted for, professional legal advice. For that I strongly recommend you contact an attorney! 

Gordon P. Firemark, an entertainment and media lawyer based out of Los Angeles, California,  explained to me that music is a particularly tricky area. That's not only because most music is protected by copyright, but because "there are actually two copyrights for each song, and in most cases the artist doesn't own either of the copyrights," he says. There is...

1.One copyright for the song, and;

2. Another copyright for the recording of the song itself.

"So for newer compositions, it's actually necessary to obtain two licenses. These are obtained from the music publisher and record label, respectively" says Gordon.

#1) When You Don't Need Permission To Use Other's Music

The only times you don't need third party permission is if it's public domain music; or if you've written, performed and recorded the material yourself, says Gordon. "While older (pre 1900), compositions are in the public domain, the more recent recordings are, in most cases, still covered by copyright law."

As a professional video marketer who deals with media producers, I'll usually have work-for-hire written agreement with the recording artist for any newly produced soundtrack for a video. My written agreements also specify any and all uses I plan to make, or foresee myself doing. That also includes if I want to re-edit the recording artist's original soundtrack they made for me. (Some licensing agencies, including stock audio agencies, will either prohibit you from doing that, or charge you extra.)

#2) Be Sure to Include Internet Rights with Music Licenses

"Be sure, when obtaining licenses, to include a request for Internet rights. Most licenses cover only the synchronization of the music with the images in the video, but don't automatically include the right to stream the video, or make it available for download." says Gordon.

How YouTube Handles Copyright Infringement of Music in Online Videos

For video you put on YouTube that has recognizable copyrighted music from one of their content partners (usually a major recording studio), YouTube at the request of the recording label, may do one of the following three things:

  • Remove your video entirely from your account
  • Mute the audio on your video or;
  • Allow the copyrighted music or other audio in your video, with additional links in Amazon.com and iTunes to the original source (available for purchase).

YouTube's "Audioswap" Feature Available For Professional Videos

Audioswap is a free feature in YouTube that allows you to automatically add music or soundtrack to any of your YouTube videos, from their pretty extensive library of music genres. Here is the good news: An authorized representative from YouTube just informed me that the entire Audioswap library is equally permissible for professional use!

#3) Giving The Recording Artist Label Credit Isn't Enough

I once had someone ask me, could they avoid having to get the recording artist or copyright owner's permission in their online video featuring the artist's soundtrack, as long they were giving credit somewhere in the video?

I never do that myself, and YouTube won't treat it as permissible, either (unless the YouTube Content Partner who owns the copyright already has an arrangement in place to allow for it.)  Simply giving the copyright owner credit in your photo slideshow video, doesn't ever substitute for getting actual permission to use their work. That especially applies with online video, even if make it unlisted and on a private URL.

#4) Performing a Cover Song In Video Requires Permissions

Even if you're doing your own performance, you still need permission from the original recording artist or licensing agency acting on their behalf. Recording a "cover" of another artist's song falls under the legal protection of "mechanical rights" – which includes reproducing derivatives of a copyrighted work.

#5) Music Software Program May Not Be Allowed!

So what about the music already provided in computer video or photo slideshow software? Like say, iPhoto or iMovie for the Mac? Can you take that for my own professional use?

Well, people sometimes get confused with a license for personal use of a musical soundtrack versus a license for professional use. For example, the music you may get included in a photo slideshow program that's all copyrighted music and you're only permitted a license for personal use. You do not have the permission to create a photo slideshow, video, or anything other multimedia using that copyrighted music, if you are using it for any commercial or professionally related purposes, including self-promotion. Even sending out something as seemingly harmless as a photo slideshow Christmas card to your clients and business colleagues could be treated as an infringement!

#6) "Educational" Videos Don't Get a Pass on Copyright Use

As the School Video News Website reports, just because you're producing a video either for a school or other educational institution, even for a not-for-profit organization, does not mean that the copyrighted music content is for educational purposes. It is considered an "ancillary" (i.e., supportive) use, which still makes it a non-essential item to the educational purpose of the video itself.

#7) Remixes May Not Be Allowed With 3rd Party Stock Audio Sites

So can edit or remix the original audio track you purchased a license for to use in your professional video or photo slideshow? Well,your licensing agreement with anyone should state whether you can or can't do that. Some soundtrack and audio stock footage companies like Sound Ideas®, stipulate in their end user license agreement that you cannot "change or alter in any way an original music composition owned or represented by Sound Ideas (for example, by adding 
instruments or lyrics) without the prior written consent of the owner." What that means is re-mixes aren't allowed unless you receive an additional permission on top of your standard licensing agreement.

More Advice: Copyrights, Permissions, and Licensing with Music

I will take great care to repeat myself here: I am not a lawyer, and nothing here should not be construed as, or substituted for, legal advice. I'm speaking here as a marketer with professional experience working with online video projects involving music soundtracks and other professionally recorded audio. Your own experiences may vary!

  • Browse stock footage websites. They have a wide selection at a fraction of the cost, and will typically be just as good as anything you could get on a custom arrangement. Some websites offering a wide library of music, sound effects, and other professional-quality audio for licensing include: istockphoto.com, gettyimages.com/music, royaltyfreemusic.com, musicbakery.com, and sound-ideas.com. (Thanks to our audience members for posting their own recommendations of stock audio footage websites in our comments section of this article!)
  • Have a written agreement that covers all planned and possible uses. Any transformation of the original audio should require something in writing saying that you reserve the option to do so.
  • Always get permissions in writing. Remember, this isn't the same as personal or other recreational use on YouTube or what you may put up anywhere online. If you're doing it for any professional purposes, you need to have a written agreement with the original copyright holder (such as the artist), or whoever their licensing agency may be).
  • Search music licensing agencies. If you don't already know who to ask for permission, check out the Copyright Advisory Office for Collective Licensing Agencies. Look under the section marked "Musical Works: Performance Rights.”  (If you're planning on doing a cover of someone else's copyrighted music, look under "Musical Works: Mechanical Rights”). Also, if you can't find a matching agency on there, just do a Google search (or your search engine of choice) with a query of the name of the artist/song, and the term "licensing" or "licensing information.”
  • Consider YouTube's Audioswap. Granted, you are limited to using the audio as-is (no remixing or other editing), and it eliminates whatever background or foreground soundtrack you may already have. However videographers and photographers doing slideshows should find it advantageous to use in at least some circumstances for both client and portfolio display.
Thanks To Gordon P. Firemark for His Legal Video Information!

Gordon P. Firemark, entertainment and media lawyer based out of Los Angeles, California. Gordon's credentials include: Producer and host of Entertainment Law Update, a podcast for artists and professionals in the entertainment industries; Author of The Podcast, Blog and New Media Producer's Legal Survival Guide, and he teaches Business Law at Loyola Marymount University, and Theatre Law in the innovative Online Entertainment LLM program at Southwestern Law School.

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Posted in Video & The Law
About Our Contributing Author - Grant Crowell

Please Note: Opinions expressed in this article are those of the contributing author and not necessarily that of

What do you think? ▼
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1024320459 Jim Van Wyck

    Extremely useful overview of permissions and rights when looking into background music.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408472690 Wayne Clark

    There is another great source for original music available and that is on "soundclick.com". There are hundreds of musicians and song writers who make their music available, usually for a small fee as low as $10.00 for a one time use. Many are available using a creative commons license and requiring just credit. Many of these artists are professionals who write scores for films, and many are just amateurs singing in the shower. A lot of them will allow you to purchase the music for exclusive use, for a higher fee.

  • Scott Whitney

    Great information...much appreciated. PremiumBeat.com and PumpAudio.com are 2 of my favorites for royalty free music. Great background music for corporate and marketing productions.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=586657945 Craig Price

      I've used premiumbeat.com several times. Great resource. :)

  • Daliah Saper

    Nice article Grant!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1758061406 Alexandria Colunga

    so say I wanted to use a jonas brother song called love bug from the album. and says its : Sony ATV Publishing. I searched all over, where do you think the email address could be? thank you.

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    Find best <a href="http://www.horrorgrind.com/category/ghost-stories/">Ghost stories</a>, horror movies, scary movies and scary stuff at horrorgrind.com.

  • Tam

    what if the artist offers the song for a free download on say for example on Noise trade? Can you use the song on your website if they have given it out for free anyway? I want this song but I cannot find a royalty free download for it.

  • Ian James

    what if a friend comes to me with vacation video clips and a thumbdrive full of songs purchased in the itunes store and wants me to attach the songs to the clips so he/she can show the video to family and friends. Am i violating copyright by manipulating the two or is he/she by being in possession of the finished video? furthermore, what if my friend pays me to edit the two together with no resale intentions?

  • http://www.facebook.com/anish.chakraborty Anish Chakraborty

    how do i obtain the permission for a song? whom do i contact? and how do i contact to get the permissions to use it as a background music for a short video??
    thanks in advance.. :)

  • http://crazymikesapps.com/ crazymikesapps


    Awesome and very informative article. I have a unique music copyright question. I do app reviews and I have apps that require music to be displayed i.e. SoundHound and others. Is it permissible to use brief snippets of identifiable copyright protected music for review purposes, even if it is merely 3 to 6 seconds for review purposes? I have always steered away from music apps because of some earlier issues from YouTube. Weirdly they only put a notification on my earlier videos, but never allowed them not to be viewed, except possibly for select countries.

    thank you and any advice is appreciated.


  • Vera

    8-th tip: changed the pitch and eventually add some echo and bypass shittube.

  • Freeman4096

    short version: Big content will not allow you to use anything in any way. #youtubers that spoke out loud.

  • Joanne Talkington

    It would be helpful if ReelSEO dedicated someone to help people with questions coming from the commentors, even with older evergreen posts like this one.