Music in Film & TV: Legal and Practical Issues (By Glenn Litwak)

This article will discuss some of the basic legal and practical issues when licensing music for film and TV in a question and answer format.

1 What copyrights are involved in licensing music for film and TV?

The first concept to an understanding of music in film and TV is the different types of copyrights involved in music. There are separate copyrights for musical compositions and master recordings. A musical composition is an original musical work, either a song or an instrumental piece. A “Master” or “Master Recording” is a recording of a particular composition. So, for example, Paul McCartney wrote a composition called “Let it Be” (Credited to LennonMcCartney). The Beatles recorded the Master of that composition. Other artists can also record a Master of “Let it Be” (assuming they have acquired the rights).

2 What rights need to be licensed to use a song in TV or Film?

When licensing a master one must obtain a Master use license which authorizes one to use a particular Master. In addition, one must license the underlying composition by obtaining a “synchronization’ or “synch” license. The synch license authorizes one to use the composition in synchronization with visual images, such as in a movie, TV show or video. These two licenses are often combined into one document.

3 Who do you contact if you want to license music?

If the recording artist or group is not signed to a recording contract with a record label and/or a music publishing agreement, then you can simply contract the artist. Many people like to deal directly with an unsigned artist because it will usually be quicker, easier and less expensive to negotiate the licenses needed.

If the recording artist is signed to a record label and/or a publisher, then you must negotiate with them. It can become complicated if there are multiple songwriters of a composition and you must contact several music publishers. The major labels and music publishers have departments that deal with licensing.

4 When are masters licensed and when are original compositions?

You may have noticed that sometimes in TV shows, TV Commercials and films a famous song (or portion of a song) is utilized, but not the original recording. Often it may be cost prohibitive to license a famous hit song by a superstar recording artist. In low budget film and some TV shows the money available to license songs may be extremely limited.

So the filmmaker or TV producer may commission his or her own recording as a “work for hire” of the song to save money. In a “work for hire”, the producer (employer) hires an artist (employee) to record a pre-existing composition. In this situation, the filmmaker or producer does not have to license the master because the employer of a work for hire owns the master. But the underlying composition still must be licensed.

5 Who decides what music is licensed?

Filmmaker and some TV shows may have a music supervisor who is in charge of licensing music. The music supervisor will use various resources (music libraries, personal contacts, internet research) to find suitable music. Then he or she will make recommendations to the producer/director.

6 How is the price determined?

How is the price determined of the licenses needed? These are various factors that are considered when determining the price for a master use and sync license. Some of the factors are the film or TV show budget, the length of the use of the song, the type of use (end credits, during the film, etc.) how popular the song and recording artist or group is, whether the original master recording is used, etc.

7 What happens if unlicensed music is used?

Music is sometimes an afterthought to filmmakers and TV producers. It is often left to the end of the creative process and there may not be adequate budget left for it.

If unlicensed music is used that is not in the public domain, it may constitute copyright infringement. If a filmmaker tries to license music that is already in his or her film and cannot be replaced, the filmmaker is in a very bad position to negotiate. However, if the owner of the rights wants the song to be in the film, then it can still be possible to negotiate the appropriate licenses.


If you are a filmmaker or TV producer be careful to promptly obtain the proper licenses needed for your movie or TV show. If you are a recording artist, licensing your music for film and TV can be lucrative and raise your profile.

This article is a brief overview of licensing music for film and TV and does not constitute legal advice.

Glenn Litwak is a veteran music and entertainment attorney based in Santa Monica, CA. He has represented platinum selling recording artists, Grammy winning music producers and hit songwriters, as well as management and production companies, music publishers and independent record labels. Glenn is also a frequent speaker at music industry conferences around the country, such as South by Southwest and the Billboard Music in Film.

Email Glenn at or check out his website at