Understanding Music Copyrights and Licenses

Find out more about the world of music publishing, licensing and copyright in our extensive guide...


As aspiring music students, it's essential to understand the intricacies of music copyrights and how they protect your creative works.

From the basics of copyright law to practical steps for safeguarding your musical creations, it is important to get to grips with how copyrights works for musicians and artists. This can help you create a variety of revenue streams to ensure you get paid for your music. 

Check out our guide below and find out more about our (BA) Music Business and Entrepreneurship course here. 

What are Music Copyrights?  

Music copyrights are legal protections granted to the creators of original musical works.

They grant exclusive rights to the copyright owners, allowing them to control and benefit from the use, public performance, license and distribution of their music. Music copyrights cover two primary aspects: musical compositions and sound recordings.

Registering Your Work


Copyrighting your musical works is a crucial step in protecting your creative output. Here's a step-by-step guide on how to register your music for copyright in the UK.

Step 1: Understand What Copyright Protects

In the UK, copyright law automatically protects original musical, dramatic, and literary works. This includes song lyrics and melodies.

You don't have to apply for copyright; it's yours as soon as you create the original work yourself. However, proving that you're the original creator of the work can sometimes be challenging, which is where registration services come in."

Step 2: Use a Registration Service

While it's not necessary to register your work to have it copyrighted, doing so can be an effective way of providing evidence that you're the original creator of the work.

You can use a registration service like the UK Copyright Service or the Intellectual Property Office's Copyright Registration Service. These services will date-stamp your work and keep a secure record of it, which can be useful if someone else claims your work as their own.

Step 3: Register Your Work

To register your work, you'll typically need to create an account with the registration service, fill out a form detailing your work, and pay a fee. You may also need to upload a copy of your work. Be sure to read any instructions on the platform carefully to ensure you're providing all the necessary information to secure your creations.

Step 4: Keep a Record

Once you've registered your work, you'll receive a certificate or another form of confirmation. Keep this in a safe place, as it's your proof of registration. You should also keep drafts, recordings, and any other evidence that shows the process of creating your work.

Tip: Remember to re-register your work. Some organisations ask you to do this, typically after three-five years.

The 2 main benefits of registering your music copyright

Registering your music copyright, while not always a requirement, can provide several important benefits for creatives.

Legal Evidence

Registering your copyright provides a public record of your ownership claim. This can be extremely beneficial if you ever need to prove in court that you are the original creator of the work. The registration serves as prima facie evidence (meaning it's accepted as correct until proven otherwise) of the validity of the copyright and the facts stated in the certificate. This can make it much easier to assert your rights if your work is ever infringed upon.

Eligibility for Statutory Damages and Legal Fees

In many jurisdictions, including the United States, you must have registered your copyright before you can file a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

Furthermore, if you've registered your copyright prior to any infringement, or within three months of publication, you may be eligible to receive statutory damages and legal fees in a successful lawsuit. Statutory damages mean you don't have to prove any actual monetary harm, which can be difficult; instead, the law provides a range of damages that can be awarded. This can be a significant advantage in a copyright infringement lawsuit.

In summary, while copyright exists from the moment a musical work itself is created, registering that copyright can provide significant legal advantages, making it a worthwhile consideration for any songwriter or composer.

How is music publishing different from music licensing?

Music publishing and music licensing are two critical aspects of the music industry ecosystem, and while they are interconnected, they serve different functions.

Music Publishing

Music publishing involves the management and promotion of a song's copyright. When a song is written, it automatically becomes copyrighted material. This copyright is a form of intellectual property, and it gives the owner exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, and perform the song.

A music publisher's role is to exploit this copyright by finding opportunities for the song to be used commercially. This could involve getting the song played on the radio, used in a film or TV show, covered by another artist, or included in a commercial.

Music publishers also collect royalties on behalf of the songwriter when these songs are used in this way. These royalties can come from various sources, including mechanical royalties (from the sale of physical copies or digital downloads), performance royalties (from the song being performed live or played on the radio), and synchronization royalties (from the song being used in TV, film, or commercials).

Music Licensing

Music licensing is the process through which music rightsholders (often the songwriter or their publisher) grant permission for their music to be used by others. This could be for a variety of uses, such as in a film, TV show, commercial, video game, or even on the radio.

When a song is licensed, the rightsholder typically receives a fee in exchange for granting this permission. This fee can vary widely depending on the nature of the use, the popularity of the song, and other factors.

In summary, music publishing involves managing and promoting a song's copyright, while music licensing is the process of granting permission for that copyrighted music to be used by others. Both are crucial aspects of the music industry and important revenue streams for songwriters and artists in music world.

Performing Rights Society (PRS) and Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society (MCPS)  


PRS for Music pays royalties to its members through music that has been broadcast on TV or radio, performed or playing in public either live or recorded and music that has been streamed and downloaded.   

The Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) has a service agreement in place with PRS who provide management and administrative services to MCPS. MCPS pay royalties to its members when music is copied as physical products such as CDs and DVDs, streamed or downloaded or used in TV, film or radio.   

You can find out more about PRS for Music here, as well as registering to make sure you are getting paid for your music.   

Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL)


Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) Represents recording rightsholders and performers for the use of their recordings and performances. Licenses recorded music for broadcast on radio, TV and certain digital media services  

Find out more about PPL here.  

Two types of music copyright: master and composition

In the music industry, there are two primary types of copyright that protect different aspects of a song: the composition copyright and the master recording copyright.

Composition Copyright

The composition copyright protects the underlying structure of the song, including the melody, lyrics, and chord progression. This copyright is typically owned by the songwriter who created the song, or their publisher if they have one.

When someone covers a song, they need to obtain a mechanical license from the owner of the composition copyright. Similarly, if a song is used in a TV show, movie, or commercial, a synchronization license must be obtained from the composition copyright owner.

Master Recording Copyright

The master recording copyright protects a specific, recorded version of a song. This copyright is typically owned by the recording artist or their record label.

The master recording copyright is separate from the composition copyright. For example, if a recording artist covers a song, they own the master recording copyright for their specific version of the song, but the composition copyright is still owned by the original songwriter or their publisher.

When a recorded song is used in a TV show, movie, or commercial, a master use license must be obtained from the owner of the master recording copyright.

In summary, the composition copyright protects the underlying song (the melody, lyrics, and chord progression), while the master recording copyright protects a specific recorded version of the song. Both types of copyright provide important protections for songwriters and recording artists, and both can generate income through licensing fees and royalties.

If Your Work Is Used Unlawfully...


Gather Evidence

The first step is to gather evidence of the infringement. This could be a screenshot, a link to the content, or any other tangible form of proof that your work has been used without your permission.

Consult with a Legal Professional

It's advisable to consult with a legal professional who specialises in copyright law. They can provide guidance on the best course of action and help you understand your rights under UK law.

Send a Cease and Desist Letter

A cease and desist letter is a formal request for the infringing party to stop using your copyrighted work. This letter typically outlines the nature of the infringement and demands that the infringing party stop using your work and possibly pay damages. It's often best to have a lawyer draft this letter to ensure it includes all necessary legal language.

Report the Infringement to the Platform

If your work is being used online without your permission, you can report the infringement to the platform hosting the content. Most online platforms have procedures in place for reporting copyright infringement and may take down the infringing content.

Pursue Legal Action

If the infringing party does not respond to your cease and desist letter or continues to use your work, you may choose to pursue legal action. This could involve filing a lawsuit for copyright infringement. If successful, you may be able to recover damages and potentially stop the infringing party from using your work.

Remember, copyright law can be complex, and the best course of action can depend on the specifics of your situation. It's always a good idea to consult with a legal professional to understand your options and ensure your rights are protected under UK law."

Types of Music Industry Licenses

There are various types of music licenses that correspond to different use cases and rights. Here are some common types:  

Mechanical Licenses: They cover activities like recording cover versions, releasing your own recordings of existing songs, or distributing digital or physical copies of music.  

Synchronisation Licenses: Synchronisation licenses are necessary for using music in audiovisual projects. This includes films, TV shows, commercials, video games, or online videos where music is synchronised with visual content.  

Performance Licenses: Performance licenses grant permission to publicly perform music.   

Master Use Licenses: Master use licenses are required when using a specific sound recording in another project, such as incorporating a famous recording into a film or TV show.   

Music licenses are crucial for both creators and users of music. They provide legal protection, ensure fair compensation for copyright owners, and foster a thriving music ecosystem. By obtaining the necessary licenses, individuals and businesses can avoid copyright infringement claims, support artists' livelihoods, and contribute to a sustainable music business and industry.

Reproduce the copyrighted work


Reproducing copyrighted music in the UK, whether it's for a cover, sample, or any other form of reproduction, requires obtaining the necessary licenses from the copyright holder(s).

Here's an overview of the general process:

Identify the Copyright Holder(s)

The first step is to identify who holds the copyright for the sheet music that you want to reproduce. There are typically two copyrights for each piece of music: one for the composition (held by the songwriter or their publisher) and one for the specific recording (held by the artist or their record label).

Request Permission

Once you've identified the copyright holder(s), you need to request permission to reproduce the music. This usually involves contacting them directly or through their representative (like a music publisher or record label).

Obtain the Necessary Licenses

If the copyright holder(s) agree to your request, they will typically grant you a license to reproduce the music. The type of license you need depends on how you plan to use the music:

- Mechanical License: If you're creating a cover version of a song and plan to distribute it (either physically or digitally), you'll need a mechanical license from the copyright holder of the composition.

- Synchronization License: If you want to use the music in a video, film, or TV show, you'll need a synchronization (or "sync") license from both the copyright holder of the composition and a master license from the copyright holder of the recording.

- Sample License: If you're sampling a piece of the music in your own song, you'll need a sample license from both the copyright holder of the composition and the copyright holder of the recording.

Pay Any Required Fees

Licenses often come with fees, which can vary depending on the popularity of the song, how you plan to use it, and other factors. Be sure to understand any fees before agreeing to the license.

Follow the Terms of the License

Once you've obtained the necessary music license from(s), be sure to follow all the terms outlined in the agreement. This could include restrictions on how and where you can use the music, requirements to credit the original artist, and more.

Hopefully our blog should provide you with an overview of music copyright, publishing and licensing. Get in touch with any queries, insights or questions...

Take the first steps in your music career with ICMP

We've been developing and delivering contemporary music education for over 30 years – longer than any other music school in the UK. With a proven track-record, countless music industry connections and unrivalled access to facilities, it's easy to see why hundreds of students choose ICMP each year. 

To completely immerse yourself in your music career, chat with our friendly Admissions Team via email enquiries@icmp.ac.uk or give them a call on 020 7328 0222.

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by ICMP staff writer
August 18, 2023
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