Royalty Free Music Doesn’t Mean What You Might Think It Does

Many companies offer what they call ‘royalty-free’ music. But there are many misconceptions and incorrect assumptions around this phrase that do not match the legal reality. Read on to understand what using ‘royalty-free’ music does – and doesn’t – mean for users.

The most accurate definition of ‘royalty free’ is music that is licensed with a single fee and includes unlimited uses. However, contrary to common perception, most royalty-free music is not 100% free of any rights whatsoever.

A little history…..

“Royalty free” originally had nothing to do with music royalties at all.  The term first started being used by stock photography and footage suppliers who offered media one of two ways:

– Rights Managed: content that must be licensed for each individual use

– Royalty Free:  content that needed to be licensed only once with unlimited future usage.

Eventually, some stock photography/footage suppliers began offering production music and continued to use the term ‘royalty free’ to communicate the licensing method. The term was eventually adopted by many other music suppliers.  This was an unfortunate migration of the term and creates a fair amount of confusion for content creators.   

Common Misconceptions:

  • Using ‘royalty free’ music eliminates the need to pay royalties to a PRO (ASCAP/BMI etc.). 

Content creators are not responsible for paying royalties to a PRO regardless if the music is royalty free or not. Exhibitors are responsible for securing the performing rights, and they are defined as anyone that plays music publicly, such as a streaming service, radio station, or concert venue. See infographic linked (and also below) for more on exhibitors and content creators.

  • Using ‘royalty free’ music eliminates any hassles or legal issues.

This is often not the case. Many royalty free suppliers do not include proper indemnification or carry E&O insurance.  There are additional concerns when the supplier is a crowd-sourced aggregator, such as copyright integrity and digital detection conflicts.

  • Composers of ‘royalty free’ music never receive royalties when their music is publicly performed.

Not true. All musical works registered with a performing rights organization (PRO) pay out royalties when usage is properly reported.  

  • ‘Royalty Free’ music is never registered with a performing rights organization ( PRO ).

Not true.  The overwhelming majority of royalty free offerings are indeed registered with a PRO.

TL;DR. Always check the license and/or ask for clarification whenever a company claims its music is ‘royalty-free’.

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