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How to Give Credit to a Copyrighted Song

By Claire Gillespie - Updated January 23, 2019
Woman listening to music on headphones

If you want to use a copyrighted song, you have to give credit to the copyright owners. Depending on how you're using the song, and how many copyright owners there are, this can get a little complicated. It's not enough to just give credit to the copyright owners. First, you have to get permission to use the song, otherwise you're infringing copyright laws and could face legal consequences, such as a hefty fine.

Tip

To give credit to a copyrighted song, you must first establish the identities of, and get permission from, the various copyright owners, such as the record label and the songwriter. You must then use specific words of credit, which vary depending on how you’re using the copyrighted song.

Types of Music Copyrights

Music copyrights come in two forms: musical work (i.e., the lyrics and musical score) and sound recording (i.e., what you actually hear). Musical work copyrights are held by the person or group who owns the master recording of the song. In most cases, the master recording belongs to the record label who employs the artists. Sound recording copyrights are held by whomever owns the composition of the song. Generally, the songwriter is the composition owner, unless he has contracted away his publishing rights.

Searching for a Copyrighted Song

To determine ownership for a song created after 1978, go to the Public Catalog web page on the Library of Congress website and carry out a search for the song you want to use. For a song created before 1978, visit the Copyright Public Records Reading Room at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and ask a staff member to look up the information by submitting a copyright "Search Request Form" with the applicable per-hour search fee. Alternatively, you can do the research yourself.

License Agreements for Copyrighted Songs

Permission to use a copyrighted song comes in the form of a license agreement, which you may have to pay for. To make obtaining licenses easier, several music rights organizations exist to grant them on behalf of songwriters and record labels. If they don't grant the licenses directly, they can give you the contact information you need for the relevant music publisher or record label.

If you're using a copyrighted song in a short film, video game or slideshow, you need two types of license: a synchronization ("sync") license and a master use license. A sync license lets you use the musical composition in an audio-visual work, while the master use license lets you use a sound recording of that work.

The music rights organization SESAC provides sync licenses for many popular songs. You can also search the repertories of performing rights organizations, such as ASCAP and BMI, to find out who the publisher is and how to request a sync license.

Master use licenses are typically available from the record label. To request a license, contact the label's licensing, business affairs or legal department.

It may be a good idea to consult an intellectual property lawyer if you're unsure what type of license you require or have a complicated copyright issue.

Giving Copyrighted Song Credit

If you have used a sample of a copyrighted song to create a new piece of work, the correct song credits format is: "Contains a sample of (Song Title) by (Performers) courtesy of (sound recording copyright claimant). "

However, if you rerecorded or performed a cover version, also known as a remake, of a copyrighted song, use the following credit: "(Song Title); Written by (songwriters/composers); Published by (musical work copyright claimant)."

Music credits in film if you used the performance of a copyrighted song should be written as follows: "(Song Title); Written by (songwriters/composers); Performed by (artist); Courtesy of (sound recording copyright claimant)."

About the Author

Claire is a qualified lawyer and specialized in family law before becoming a full-time writer. She has written for many digital publications, including The Washington Post, Forbes, Vice and HealthCentral.

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