Songs in movies, TV shows, and ads: How do the licenses work?

George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc. He currently advises numerous entertainment and non-entertainment firms and individuals. Additionally, he is the Executive Editor of Artists House Music and is a Professor and Executive in Residence in the college of Business Administration at Loyola, New Orleans. He is most easily found on Twitter at:

I get asked this question (or a variant on it) more than just about any other music business related topic. I get it; it ain’t easy to understand, but it’s not that hard, and, understand it you must.

Also, as much as I believe that the “music business” is dead, and it’s all just business; the one thing that is unique to the music business is how copyright is handled. That’s not to say that you have different intellectual property interests in music than in other businesses; you don’t. Rather, there are just various “terms of art” related to © that are unique to the music business.

So…here we go: an attempt to explain the rules and licenses around songs being used in films, tv, and ads. Let me know if you have any questions; I’ll try to answer them in the comments, and maybe this can be an evolving document that we can reference.

    Any time a song is used in a film, tv show, ad there are two licenses required:

  1. A synchronization (synch) license: This is a license the producer of the above must obtain from the writer of the song (if the writer has assigned her © to a publisher, the producer must go through the publisher). 

    This license gives the producer of the above the right to synchronize the ©’d song (important: not the recording of the song, but the underlying composition – the lyrics and melody) with the moving images in the tv show, ad, or movie.

  2. A master usage license: the producer of the above must negotiate a license with the person who holds the © to the recording of the above underlying composition (i.e. the version of the song found on the CD). 
Typically, the master usage holder is the label. If there is no label (i.e., it’s self-released by the artist), then the producer of the movie, etc. negotiates directly with the artist who self-released.

Thus, in the case of an artist who has not assigned their publishing rights to anyone and self-releases their own record, the producer of the movie, etc. negotiates “both sides” (i.e. the synch and the master usage) with the artist herself.

If the artist has done a publishing deal and a record deal, the producer negotiates with the publisher for the synch rights and the label for the master usage rights.

Unlike with mechanicals (i.e. the payment labels make to songwriters for the rights to mechanically reproduce a ©’d song on the album the label releases), there is no compulsory license for either synch or master licenses. Because there is no compulsory license for the synch or master usage, the producer must negotiate both of these licenses, and either the master holder or the publisher can deny the request.

In reality, the producer will approach one of the parties (the label or publisher – typically, publisher first – see below for why), and see if they can get the writer interested in the synch (most writers, of course, are falling all over themselves to have their music used).

The producer makes the publisher/writer an offer, and then tries to shift the burden of the master clearance to the writer/publisher. At that point, they (both producer and the publisher/writer) push on the label to clear the master side (most labels, of course, are falling all over themselves to have their music used), and a deal is struck. 

The fee is divided (typically evenly) between the publisher for the synch rights and the master holder for the, er, master rights.

Sometimes, the publisher will want to do the deal, but the label won’t. In this case — as you saw, for instance in I am Sam, where the publisher for the Beatles cleared the synch rights for the song, but the label wouldn’t make a deal for the master usage — the producers used different masters (i.e. they had artists cover the songs).

It doesn’t work the other way; if the publisher won’t grant the synch license, the party is over – this is why producers go to publishers first: they’re the dispositive party.

Importantly, in the US, when the Ad or TV show or Movie is publicly performed on TV (i.e. it’s broadcast), a performance royalty is generated for the writer and publisher of the song (often the same person). The performer (i.e. the person on the master) sees none of this performance royalty. Do note, that no performance royalty is generated from public performance in movie theaters, as they are (wink, wink, nod, nod) exempt from paying public performance royalties.

Additionally, in 1995 Congress enacted the Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act (DPRA). This act — in conjunction with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1995 — created a performance royalty obligation to be paid by webcasters whenever they broadcast a ©’d work over the Internet. Significantly, this performance royalty compensates the performer and content owner (i.e., label) of the work. The publisher and writer are still compensated when their ©’d works are publicly performed online via the Performance Rights Organizations (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC), but now — due to the DPRA — the featured performer and content owner are also compensated. This brings the US in line with the rest of the world (with some glaring exceptions, like North Korea) with respect to paying a performance royalty to both the writer and performer. Of course, to date (though efforts are afoot to change this) this only applies to public performance when it is digitally transmitted; for terrestrial radio (i.e. FM/AM), only the writers are paid a performance royalty. SoundExchange collects from webcasters on behalf of their registered members. SoundExhchange’s authority to collect for/distribute to these SRCOs comes from a designation by the Librarian of Congress and the US © office.

So, when you’re watching Hulu and an ad comes on with music underneath that has been licensed by a producer of the ad from a label/artist, both the performer and the writer of the song are paide a performance royalty.

Please note, the above really only scratches the surface with respect to licensing. There are, of course, complexities. For instance, when doing a deal for a TV show, you also have to factor in home video, etc.

However, if you don’t understand the above, you sure won’t be able to dive deeper.
Hope this helps. Leave me questions in the comments.

  • Solo

    What are the different pay rates that perfomers/writers may get for having their song in say a movie or commercial, etc? I’m sure that everything is negotiable, but how much can a relative unknown artist make for having one of their songs in a film.

  • Chris Vinson

    Thanks for the great helpful article. The following came up today at an agency/client meeting. I represent the agency. Can you use a small section of a song in an ad and not have to compensate anyone and if so, how short does the section of the song have to be?.

  • Garry john kane

    Thanks for this article means a lot to me as I’ve been approached for music for tv/film and now I know what to do
    Thanks again
    Button up

  • Marilyn Hill

    I have been trying to find out what I need to do if i want to record my own voice to the background music of any famous artist, basically to use on my own website and/or even to sing in public, maybe or maybe not for resale, is it possible for resale as well? What are the things i need to do for all these scenarios? :-)

  • Marilyn Hill

    also, what if i want to record my voice to all the famous Christmas Carols as well, what would i need to do to make it legal for me to do so?

  • Lee Shaw

    I’ve been interested in moving into production music, I’m only very new to the music business and this is a great article, but it seems to me that if you want to run your band as a “business” then using production music to ‘drive’ the business could end up being a major buffer that keeps us afloat and able to start taking more interesting risks without completely bombing if we fail (i.e massive debt).

  • Rob Reed

    Very informative… thanks!

  • juliet

    I used to work for an Australian company that specifically made music for film, TV and advertising. It is amazing how much producers of shows do not understand of music licensing (or maybe they’re trying to get around the payment by feigning ignorance).
    In my experience when composers custom make music for a particular project, they are also negotiating directly with the producers of the project, and these negotiations decide how much the composer is paid.
    Many factors come into play here, such as the type of media. 30 secs of advertising will pay far more than 30 secs of music for a short film. Other factors are the duration of the music within the project, the geographical territories in which the project will be screened, the project’s so called “budget” for music, and the composer’s experience.
    It is the last two factors that seem to be more emotional factors in determining the rate of the music than anything else, but they are still important.
    Young up and coming composers will take on low budget project to get noticed. If this is the case they should be wary of setting a precedent with that client and therefore make it perfectly clear to them that they are giving a discount on services.
    Composers, mostly as insecure artists, may feel that they need more need experience and perhaps even recognition through industry awards before they can charge a reasonable rate.
    But charging too little may give the impression that they are unprofessional when in fact, a composer has to remember that:
    a) they have probably been trained in an instrument since a young age
    b) they have a specialist creative talent and
    c) probably also have some tertiary training in music and recording technologies (that is not cheap!)
    So they have more right to be called a professional and more qualified then most people working on a film or other type of production.
    So then what do you charge? A good guide to support your pricing structure is a Production Music Rate Card, Here’s the Australian one:
    These is what “off the shelf” music costs a production. Production Music is taken from music libraries, such as and the quality is getting quite good.
    However production music has it’s limitations as it still has to be edited to fit the music, you have no control over the separate elements, and sometimes takes more time to find than it would just to write exact type of music you want in the first place.
    The music samples are basically generic copies of what is popular, with little/no/ or lame lyrics. If you are looking for something unique, it will be difficult for production music to deliver.
    Also production music gives a NON EXCLUSIVE license, whereas a composer can write something that will be used exclusively for a project. This has a lot of extra value, when you consider that 2 competing brands could possibly end up have the same music in advertising if they used production music, and this could be confusing to consumers.
    If you are a band and a producer has approached you to use your music, it may also be because your band has a popular following or has the right branding image, thanks to your band’s previous marketing. Production music is faceless and therefore cannot provide this extra branding value.
    Therefore if you need a starting point, I would look up the equivalent rate of the project on the production music rate card, multiple by 2, and then use that as a starting point for negotiations. However if you are clever you may be able to get away with a lot, lot more.

  • C Shoe

    I write music; someone else wrote lyrics. I own 100%; she owns 100%. We would love that song to be performed on film, but we belong to different unions in different countries that use different monies. Would the unions need to meet and would we have to be present and should we bring lawyers, and, and, and…?

  • emmanuel

    contact me asap. we are interested in this music we are independent everything is recorded and made already we live this. contact me asap Dj 315

  • Erik F

    The synch/master licenses are negotiated like anything else–it can be $20/side or 0$/side or 25,000/side.
    I had a prominent ad campaign use my piece. It played for around 2 months, but very often and I earned ASCAP payments of around 18,000 total for both “writers” and “publishers”. I negotiated a separate fee for the synch/master licenses. For the ASCAP, it was necessary for me to track down the ‘play logs’ for the ad and submit them to ASCAP. I got these logs from the advertising agency that handled the account. You get a certain fee for a national spot, less for a local spot, even less for radio..etc.
    Many people get 0 money for synch/master licenses hoping to monopolize on the publicity the ad campaign will get their music. This is clearly quite a good bet in the case of something like Apple..less so with Drano.

  • Johnny Jaywalker

    I have thousands of karaoke tracks and sing at weddongs, funerals, corporate banquests etc. What do I have to do to legally post on my website and social site my own recordings with these karaoke tracks??? Thank you Johnny Jaywalker


    Hello i really find this article interesting
    because this is a subject that i still yet to understand because i compose tracks for clients and also work in conjunction with fellow musicians to do composition so i still need to know more about it.
    my main questions about publishing are.
    why is it necessary to use a publisher and how does it benefits,
    how to find a good publisher
    AS an independent artist can i publish the music myself.
    Does it cost to publish ones music.

  • Glenn Nolle

    At the very least, getting your music into a movie documentary or commercial provides exposure for the artist even when recieving compensation that is lower than expected. The movie “The Breakfast Club” put Simple Minds on the map dude! I have experience in multimedia design as well, so my flexibility is enhanced from the standpoint that I can write music and storyboard it on the visual end as well. it’s not easy. You have to be badass!

  • Norman

    I did a song that was used in a movie.I played all the music,originated the composition,wrote all the lyrics and I was the performer on the song.When I did the deal there was no payment involved upfront.The film went on to become very successful in four months and is still in theaters right now.I am asking if I am entitled to some sort of payment now.Please inform me and let me know.

  • George Howard

    Norman, if you are the (c) holder of the song and it’s an original composition and the song was used in a movie without a synch and master license in place, the producers of the movie infringed upon your (c).
    one key point is that in order to sue and collect damages you MUST register your (c). If you don’t you can’t sue.
    I recommend you register your (c) immediately, and then speak to the producers who used your work without authorization.
    Also, make sure you affiliated with a pro (ascap or bmi or sesac) and filled out a song submittal form for your work. this way you’ll collect perf income.

  • George Howard

    Hello i really find this article interesting
    because this is a subject that i still yet to understand because i compose tracks for clients and also work in conjunction with fellow musicians to do composition so i still need to know more about it.
    my main questions about publishing are.
    why is it necessary to use a publisher and how does it benefits,
    how to find a good publisher
    AS an independent artist can i publish the music myself.
    Does it cost to publish ones music.
    Great question with respect to why (if) it’s necessary to have a publisher. the first thing to remember is that until/unless you assign your rights to a publisher, you ARE your own publisher.
    Now, publishers have 3 roles:
    1. collect
    2. register/protect
    3. exploit
    of the three, exploit is the hardest and most essential. registration is easy. collection – in the case of synch and performance – should be easy (harder with respect to mechanicals).
    bottom line, you can do 1 and 2 yourself, but 3 is hard. 3 is the reason you give up some % of your income – if someone (a publisher) can get your works more widely used it’s worth considering.

  • George Howard

    so I’m clear, you’re singing over musical tracks for existing songs written by someone else (i.e. karaoke)? if this is the case, and you want to have your voice over these tracks on your web site, you’re sort of out of luck. karaoke involves a specific (often referred to as a “special use”) license that the karaoke companies acquire from publishers. these licenses limit the usages, and they will not include the right for you to post to your site.
    you’re better off – if you can – doing a cover of the song (i.e. making the music).
    even still, posting this cover will require you to pay license fees if you stream or download from your site.

  • George Howard

    @C Shoe
    I’m sort of baffled by your question. if it’s a co-write (two or more authors, each owning a % of the (c)), then there is often what they call an administrative publisher who will be responsible for making deals/paying all of the various writers.
    In any case, yes, agreements will have to be made.

  • George Howard

    If the Christmas Carols are in the public domain (i.e. have fallen out of (c) – which occurs 70 years after the death of the last living composer), you can do with them what you will, including reworking them with your vocals. if they’re not in the PD, you can not, however, you can cover them so long as you abide by the compulsory mechanical license provisions.

  • George Ziemann

    What I gleaned from this article is that by declaring yourself to be a publisher (not much else to it, really — as GH explained the registration and collection portions are not too difficult) and being your own record label, the licensing process for films, TV shows and ads has to go directly through you and you do not need anyone else’s approval, assuming you wrote or control the material in question.

  • George Howard

    you got it!
    the added benefit is that as an artist who controls both the master (i.e. you’re acting as your own label) and publishing (i.e. your acting as your own publisher), you collect “both sides” on any synch (the master and the publishing).
    you also get perf royalties online for both the performance and the songwriting.
    it’s the way to go!

  • David Campos

    I am a jingle writer in South Africa and I compose music for advertisement campaigns around the world.
    Just a point to add.
    If you are commissioned by a company to record a piece of music and they pay a production fee to you including all recording costs then the commissioning company become the owners of the master. basically who ever pays for the recording is the owner of the recording. You still however continue to own your composition. Its not possible to sell your ownership of your composition , only the rights to it. therefore you must negotiate a license for them to use your composition (not the master) depending on the term and territories

  • keith

    if i put a track together with royalty free loops , who owns the copyright of the track me or the people who made the loops etc , i bought the software so i thought i should be able to do with the track what i want ,or cant i use the tracks without thier permission ,thanks

  • John
  • George Howard

    I am a jingle writer in South Africa and I compose music for advertisement campaigns around the world.
    Just a point to add.
    If you are commissioned by a company to record a piece of music and they pay a production fee to you including all recording costs then the commissioning company become the owners of the master. basically who ever pays for the recording is the owner of the recording. You still however continue to own your composition. Its not possible to sell your ownership of your composition , only the rights to it. therefore you must negotiate a license for them to use your composition (not the master) depending on the term and territories
    You bring up a *really* important point, David. What you’re referencing is called a “work made for hire.” What this refers to is when a musician/composer is paid a fee in exchange for the rights to their creation.
    So, for instance, a movie producer will often commission a score from a composer, and do so utilizing a work made for hire agreement.
    By law, once the composer signs this work made for hire agreement, she assigns all rights of her creation to the producer; in fact, the producer, becomes the “author” of the song.
    As you note, the one right that does not transfer when a composer signs a work made for hire is the writer’s share of the performance right.
    This means that if and when the work that the composer created – and signed over to the producer of the film via a work made for hire – is publicly performed (e.g. if the movie is broadcast on TV), the writer would still receive the writer’s share of any performance royalty generated from this broadcast.
    Thanks for bringing this up.

  • George Howard

    Keith, this is a great question. You sort of answer it within the question itself when you define these loops as “royalty free.” So, when you buy these loops – because the author of these loops has relinquished any copy rights to these loops – you are free to use them as if they were your own creation.
    You would have the (c) on any original work you create and fix in tangible form (record/write down) inclusive of these royalty free loops.

  • rmacsuibhne

    When in negotiations of Master usage license, with a film producer, should my intents be to keep my publishing rights & (c), while just giving permission for the use of my song in his movie? When would this permission expire? How much is a fair price to be paid?

  • Justin

    GDAY George,
    Big Hello from Australia,,we are a three piece bands,grunge rock.i control the master cd,would be in to maybe putting songs on add’s, film’s and docco’s.iff you can help get back to me,,
    Thanks justin (applebite the beggars on acid)

  • James

    If you have a catalog of music, how do you present to a publisher for Movies, TV, commercials etc…?

  • Roberto

    Hi I’m from mexico well i live in mexico ,NY and LA how can I fiend the web of DPRA

  • Skyshadow

    I agree with all this. Thanks so much for sharing, George. One thing one must also add is that I have yet to come across someone who can simply represent a composer and land one of those mega deals. Interesting now isn`t it?
    PS; Speaking of such, anyone out there can get a single song of mine into a mega movie I`ll gladly pay you 75% of the total license fee you help me generate:)The music and movie textbooks are one thing. The playing field is another. And completely different – one might add. Now guys – let`s wait till the pindrop silence subsides:) The mysteries of this whole music and movie business would shock the living daylights of many a novice waiting to break in to the biz thinking it`s that easy. I`d say pure luck can even get an uninteresting song into a movie than a better one.

  • jason pfaff

    Greetings George-
    I am 35 now, very experienced, I have quality music for films/etc. its going to waste, I dont know what to do to try and get it in films and such- Should I get an agent? Or do I have to like goto a bunch of film festivals and pass out cds to directors? Thanks

  • Modernx

    I gave permission on request from a Co director from India who is making a doco to be shown on tv there who wants to add one of my songs in the start up scene as he described.
    Stating he is friends with the performer Nic Brown who i know and co wrote with my song Which I paid for the recording and performers etc…also being a member of apra i submitted the songs to them as well as informing the Co director of this./ Q.what happens now?

  • David Eaton

    Is there a way to receive performance royalties for an original arrangement of a song in public domain? (i.e., The National Anthem)
    What if the arrangement includes an introduction of completely original authorship?

  • anthony johnson

    Were do go to get licening for movies tv extra…

  • chris arena

    are their websites that music supervisors often browse for new, unsigned artists?

  • Julie

    Hi George,
    If a songwriter (who has a publisher) is hired by a movie producer to write & record a song for their movie (a “straight-to-DVD” movie), is the project than considered a “work for hire” contract?
    Would the producer (aka, music supervisor) still need to get a sync license and a master use license, or would they simply need a composer agreement with the songwriter? Thanks!

  • Pammarkhall

    Thanks for the refresher on the current state of licensing.

  • Chris Feltis

    I am producing a student documentry for a final film school project. The bulk of the shooting takes place in Karaoke bars and while I understand that the Dj using the music has limited rights of usage, how does it work for us picking it up from being in close proximity of the “singers”?

  • Sham

    very good idea

  • dancing diva

    when were songs by writers outside of the movie industry allowed to be played in movies?

  • Rhonda Merrick

    I just posted this question in a discussion room on LinkedIn, thought I’d Google it. Had no idea it was this difficult. Think I’ll stick with using my own songs and a few donated ones from indie bands that I personally know. Shame about that…

  • Gretchen

    i had this idea for a tv show which includes a girl from america who is punished to live in a new country because of her troubled pass. her family originated from there so she can speak the language. i wanted to use american music, for example, wham bam by clooney, in the show used as background music for a scene. and there are many other songs i’d like to use that are american. Some are old that were made in the early 2000’s and some are new. The show would air in the new country’s channel (in other words not in american television). So, is it possible to have foreign music being played in a foreign TV show?

    • tunecore

      Yup, definitely possible!

  • Biggmic

    I sent my music to Cali and struck and caught the attention of liongates film for 3 songs in the Katt Williams new movie can u give me some insight on what to do that want tha publishing rights

    • tunecore

      Hey there! Congrats – have you looked into TuneCore Music Publishing Administration? Browse through here to learn more about possibilities:

  • AkashJones

    Hey does anyone know where I can find the “gratis license” a music producer (Theoran Kay) told me to find it here and fill out then send it to him so he can get me permission to use his music, where could I find the gratis license :)

  • Erika Harvel

    Good Morning, I have a film that contains music and we are in the pitch phase to production companies and film studios. what rights do the composers have if we decide to use their song in my film? do they retain ownership or can that be negotiated with Producer/Writer of film? I have a composer who wrote the song track for my film but I wrote the lyrics. The composer is requesting he maintains 100% ownership of the track and I disagree. who is right? help :)

    • tunecore

      Hi Erika,

      The composer’s consent is required first and foremost. Sync licenses can be negotiated with the film company. If you’d like more information about music publishing from our team, please reach out to:


  • Cosmiq

    I am a songwriter, artist and producer, who has just recently gotten an opportunity to submit a song for a an educational program called Scie-matical, the whole team has approved my works and want to use the song as part of their campaign as a jingle and marketing tool for their movement, they have asked me to invoice them as they want to license my works and am not sure what the standard rates are for such a process.I don’t want to under charge nor over charge them please help, your assistance would be greatly appreciated. I live in South Africa