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Music and Copyright

This might be on the wrong board, but I thought I'd ask because my director friend has been busy and I don't want to pester him with questions.

I plan on starting the process of going into production with my short films sometime next year, and one thing that has been a concern of mine is how to go about using copyrighted music without running into problems. With some of my films, the song choices I wrote in are somewhat important to establishing tone and the mood, and it would lose its impact if they had to be changed to some generic creative commons music or a bad public domain song.

I believe two or so of the directors from a local festival used some copyrighted music, but I don't know them or what they used specifically. My director friend said we could opt to have a director's cut version of our stuff up somewhere with the original soundtrack, but part of me doesn't see a point in even having an alternate score selection if it's going to kill the meaning it was supposed to have.

Another thing I'm not sure about is how to thoroughly check if something still has a copyright tied to it, and if so, then who. For a short horror film I've been wanting to do has instrumentals from a shockumentary from the 70s, and I'm not sure who technically owns the soundtrack unless it's in the public domain now. So something I'm not even sure of is if it would be financially smarter to sample it or see if I can find someone who could compose an homage to the score/composer and we'd use that track.

tl;dr -- Does anyone have advice on how to go about securing copyrighted music for projects, especially independent, lower budget content?

Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing. -- Orson Welles


Hey there, I can't answer all your questions (I'm curious about all the legal stuff too), but I can shed some light on the subject from the musical side.

I'm a musician/composer who has had some material used on films & commercials. I go through an agent (EMG) so I never communicate with, or even know who is, the company using my material. FYI I get paid a lousy $100 bucks per song, meaning the agency is the one getting rich but oh well I do this for fun.

Anyway, for example suppose you want to use The Beatles "Yellow Submarine" in your movie. You would need to purchase 2 different copyright licenses. First there's the songwriter's copyright, second there's the performance copyright (the recording itself). From what I understand, the performance license is the expensive one... if you want to use the actual Beatles recording, that could cost (I estimate) tens of thousands of dollars.

Here's where indie filmmakers can beat the system, sorta. You buy the songwriting license which is much cheaper, then you pay off some starving musician such as myself to re-record the song. I'm what's called a "side artist", and as you can guess the quality varies greatly, which is why there are agencies like EMG who act as quality control and provide filmmakers with decent song replicas (while of course screwing the musicians, but hey without them I'd be playing for tips in the subway).

There's an org called the Harry Fox Agency that has a ton of info on their site. They're basically like the SAG of music licensing. So that's a good place to start researching.

If your song pick isn't too famous, like some unknown band, you might get the licenses pretty cheap... wild guess, $1000 per song? But if you want something famous it could easily cost you $10-20k. Unless you hire some scab like me to copy the song. This is actually a lot more common than you think... ever see a low budget movie that uses a famous song, but the song doesn't sound quite right? Lol could be me.