At-a-Glance: Podcast Music Copyright Laws – Can you use copyrighted music in your podcast?
- It’s not impossible. But it’s complicated, and often, expensive.
- For starters – who actually owns the songs? Music ownership is complex.
- “Fair Use” is a defense you can try to use if you get in trouble, whilst “only 7 seconds” is a bit of a myth.
- It also doesn’t matter if you’re not making money with your show.
- The good news is that there are plenty of ways to get great stock music for your podcast.
- One of our favourite companies is Shutterstock, and we have an exclusive discount code for them – PODCAST15
- There are some free podcast music options listed here, too!
- Read on to find out more…
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It’s one of the most frequently asked questions in the medium; “Can I use copyrighted music in my podcast?”. The short answer is “No”. But, as is usually the case in podcasting, there’s a little bit of “it depends”.
Our music copyright for podcasters guide was originally written in 2018. We update this post periodically to reflect changes in technology, our recommendations, and because we’re always learning new things!
It’s important to stress that we are not lawyers. I can advise here, based on experience and info I’ve learned over the years. But ultimately, you should work with a legal professional if you’re looking to use copyrighted music in your podcast.
We have an interview with Entertainment Lawyer Gordon Firemark on Podcraft titled Podcasting Law: Stay Legal, & Protect Your Brand. It’s well worth a listen if you want a deep dive into the ins and outs of the legal process.
Can I Play Copyrighted Music in a Podcast?
Alright, so the short answer isn’t quite “No”. It’s closer to “Don’t”.
Sure, it’s not impossible. But you’d need the permission of everyone who owns the music.
Music rights are complicated. There are things called “mechanical rights” and “performance rights”, for starters.
For example, let’s say your pal writes a song, then her friend’s band play and record the song. Then, they’re signed by a record label, and the song features on their new album.
You want to use this song on your podcast. Who do you approach? Who do you pay?
Well, I suppose the first person you’d pay would be a lawyer, to help you figure out who else needs to be paid.
Then, the owners of the song will want answers to questions like, “how many times will it be played?”, and “where will it be available?” As you can imagine, these questions are virtually impossible to answer in the case of podcasting.
Podcast Music Copyright Laws: Defence Arguments
Podcasters desperate to use a particular piece of music will come up with several reasons to show that there’s no copyright violation taking place. Some of these are legitimate, and others are quite simply myths.
I Only Want to Play Part of a Song
You’ll often hear things like “it’s alright, so long as you use 7 seconds or less”. This is a myth. If you play 5 or 6 seconds of a copyrighted song as your podcast theme song, you’re in breach of copyright.
What About “Fair Use”?
Fair use is a defence you can use if you get in trouble for playing copyrighted music in a podcast. It also seems to differ a little, depending on your country.
A fair use defence might stand up if you play a segment of a song for educational purposes, including criticism or commentary. It’s much less likely to be valid if you’re pulled up for playing copyrighted music as your podcast theme tune.
I’m Not Making Any Money With My Podcast
Music copyright laws are no different for not-for-profit podcasts and shows that don’t monetise. This one isn’t a valid defence I’m afraid.
I’ve Already Bought the Music Commercially
Another defence that’s been touted in the past is, “but I bought the CD!”.
When you buy copyrighted music commercially, you’re paying for the right to play it for your own entertainment, at home, in the car, etc. If you still own a CD, take a look at the small print on the sleeve. I guarantee there’ll be something around how you can’t play it “in public”.
Bottom line is, without an additional license, you wouldn’t be allowed to play it in a coffee shop, let alone stick it on a podcast episode.
Can Artists Give Me Permission to Use a Track?
It seems obvious that creators of music would have the final say over whether or not you can use their material.
In cases where indie artists have written, performed, recorded, and published their own music, then this holds true. However, many people have a stake in the songs you hear on radio, TV, or Spotify.
For example, a record company may own the rights to a particular recording of a song, whilst a music publisher is responsible for all recordings of that song. If you manage to sit these two down and explain to them that you’d like to play their song over 400 different podcast apps, and for an unlimited number of times, imagine what price you get quoted.
What About Copyrighted Music Recorded in the Background?
There’s an Incidental Inclusion defence for when your sound recordings pick up some music in the background. Say you’re recording an interview in a cafe or space outside a music venue, and you capture part of a song as “actuality” – you’ll likely be excused as you aren’t setting out to record it specifically for personal gain via your podcast.
That said, you can’t use that as an excuse when you play the first 20 seconds of Yellow Submarine at the beginning and end of every episode.
Will Podcasts Playing Copyrighted Music Have Limited Audiences?
Two of the biggest places podcasts are consumed are Apple/iTunes and Spotify.
Both directories are music distribution services too. That means they are wary of anyone playing copyrighted music on a podcast on their platform.
YouTube is also a very popular platform for podcast consumption. They have good AI detection software which can swiftly flag copyrighted music in all of its content.
So whilst you might eventually get permission in one platform, you probably won’t have it in the rest. And this, ultimately, can make it difficult to grow a decent-sized audience.
Running a Music Podcast
If you want to play popular songs, DJ-style, in a radio format, then it is possible. There are just a few caveats.
This is a Spotify-only feature, which you’d create through their media hosting wing Anchor. The key here is that you’re not editing songs into your episodes; you’re presenting the links in between and then using Spotify’s library to access the music.
This means there’s no scope for talking over the start or end of a track. It probably won’t sound as smooth and quick-paced as the radio. But, if you want to create a music show like this, then it’s your best option.
When Does a Song Go out of Copyright?
This is another tricky one because it varies from country to country. 75 years after a song was published, or 70 years after the death of the artist, are two criteria we hear regularly. You should never take these as gospel. These laws can be fluid and change year upon year depending on what’s about to go out of copyright (and who currently earns from it).
Always seek advice and clarification from a legal professional, before using a song you believe has gone into the public domain.
There’s also the question of the performance and recording rights. If you find a song in the public domain that was performed and recorded by a band a few years ago, then they own the rights to that version. You couldn’t just go ahead and use it without their permission.
Let Alitu Take Care of Your Podcast Editing
Alitu is a tool that takes your recording, polishes it up, adds your music, and publishes the episode, all automatically.
Learn more about Alitu
Does Your Podcast Need Copyrighted Music to Be Good?
This is a question worth asking yourself. If your show doesn’t open with Bohemian Rhapsody or Welcome to the Jungle, will it still be good? Will your podcast really live or die on this factor?
Have you ever come across a listener review saying, “the content and conversations in this podcast are absolutely mind-blowing, but I had to unsubscribe because it’s sorely lacking in 10 seconds of intro music by Bob Dylan!” ?
Try ploughing all your effort into choosing a unique and original topic, and creating the best possible content around it. If you do that, you’ll get away with five opening seconds of a chimp farting through a kazoo as your theme music.
So How Can I Get Great Music for My Podcast?
There are loads of different ways to get quality music that’s totally legal to play on your show.
A common method is to use a subscription service. Typically, you’d make a monthly or yearly payment, and could use as much of their material as you want during that period. This is what’s known as “Royalty Free” music.
Then there are free options out there, commonly known as “Creative Commons”.
Creative Commons Licensing or Royalty Free Music Subscription Services
Our favourite Royalty Free option is Shutterstock, whose unlimited subscription includes both Music and SFX. (30,000 tracks and 8,000 Metaverse-ready immersive SFX – starting at $16.60/mo. Our exclusive discount code for them is PODCAST15
And on the Creative Commons front, Incometech is a legendary resource for online content creators.
Other options are available, though. Here are some alternative top picks for finding podcast music that’s safe and legal to use for a variety of purposes.
Summary: Podcast Music Copyright Laws
So, can you use copyrighted music in a podcast?
It’s not impossible, but it’ll likely be complicated, expensive, and could even limit your audience.
We’re not lawyers (again, here’s an episode of Podcraft with someone who is) but you should probably steer clear of going down this route. There are plenty of great options for finding music to play on your show.
And instead of worrying about how you can legally play the latest Taylor Swift song on your show, spend the bulk of your time, energy, and resources on creating good content, and promoting it to your target audience. That’s the stuff that’ll really move the needle, after all.
If you need more tailored help, too, then check out Podcraft Academy. There, you’ll find all of our courses and resources. And, you can join us in weekly live Q&A sessions too.