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It Takes (At Least) Two To Tango: Using Pre-Recorded Music In Audiovisual Works

So you’ve made a funny video of your cat that you want to post on YouTube and you think that if you put the Stray Cats’ Stray Cat Strut as the soundtrack it would be really groovy. Now, you know a little something about copyright law and you actually do the right thing and get permission from EMI Records to use the “master” in your video.  Correctly feeling that you’ve achieved a minor miracle by getting someone in the synch licensing department at a major label to pay attention to your request, you think you’re done, right?

Wrong. To use pre-recorded music in an audio-visual work, whether it’s a feature film, TV show, video game or a video on a web site, like YouTube, you need the permission of both the copyright owner of the recording (typically a record label) and the permission of the copyright owner(s) of the underlying song that’s embodied in the recording (typically one or more music publishers).  Why? Because the Copyright Act says so.  The permission that you need is called a “synchronization” license – as you’re synchronizing music to picture – or a synch, for short.

To better understand this, think about songs that have been “covered” a lot. Most jazz fans like me are familiar with the Johnny Hartman recording of Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life, which many think is the definitive rendition.  My favorite is Nat Cole’s – the original, not the Cee-lo Green remix although I like that, too.  But there are dozens of recordings of that standard to choose from, including covers by Johnny Mathis, Linda Ronstadt and Robert Goulet.  The reason for so many covers is that the song is itself a copyrighted work, with a legal life separate and apart from any individual recording of it. And the copyright to the song is likely owned by one or more music publishers.

Therefore, in order to secure all the rights you need have your cat struttin’ away, you have to get the permission of the owners of the song, EMI Longitude Music and Rockin’ Bones Music, Inc. (at least that’s who BMI’s web site says are the music publishers) and permission of the owner of the particular recording of the song, EMI Records.  That means in order to put the track of your choice to your swingin’ cat video, you need to get three companies to dance: the record label and two music publishers.

Well, you say, “I’m not selling the video. Do I still need permission? And if I just put it up on YouTube or my own web site, what’s anybody really gonna do about it?” You’ll have to read my next post to get the answers.  Stay tuned.

© 2011 Marc D. Ostrow