How to Obtain Permission to Use Copyrighted Music

By Renee Price
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If you want to use copyrighted music in a public presentation or as a sample for a new sound recording, you must obtain permission to avoid copyright infringement proceedings. Songwriters and recording artists work hard to protect their music, and copyright laws require that individuals obtain fair use permission before using copyrighted creative works. Individuals who use copyrighted works without permission can face up to $150,000 in fines and legal fees. Obtaining fair use permission for copyrighted music may cost you royalty fees, but paying an upfront royalty to gain permission outweighs paying hefty fines and legal fees for illegal use.

Locate the owner of the sound recording by contacting the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) if you want permission to play the sound recording as is. Record labels usually own a song’s sound recording, and the RIAA handles the fair use license for most major labels. If you want permission to use a sound recording owned by a label not represented by the RIAA, find the record label’s contact information from the album’s liner notes or the label’s website.

Contact the songwriter or the owner of the song’s publishing rights if you want to perform your own rendition of the song or sample the song for a new recording. Most songwriters and recording artists belong to one of three music publishing organizations, ASCAP, BMI or SESAC. You can find the songwriter’s contact information on the website of one of these organizations. If you are unable to do so, you can find the artist’s management or legal representative from the artist's record label to request fair use permission for the song.

Discuss fair use permission with the copyright owner, as well as the required royalty payments, to use the song in question.

Submit a written request detailing the song you wish to use and the nature of your intended use, following your telephone or in-person request. Explain when and where you want to use the sound recording as explicitly as possible to show your intended use, and detail the royalty payment negotiations.

Avoid using copyrighted songs from an unidentifiable or unresponsive owner. Taking the proper measures to contact and gain permission to use the song does not guarantee a response. However, your efforts will not eliminate liability for copyright infringement if you decide to use copyrighted material without permission.