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These days, there are so many ways of getting music for free that if you need a track for background music for your video or media project, you may presume that you can just download it.

However, nothing could be further from the truth. Music copyright can be a minefield, so here’s our simple guide to all you need to know about free-to-use music (colloquially known as non-copyrighted music and no copyright music) – and where to get it.

What is non-copyrighted music?

Many people refer to and search for ‘non-copyrighted’ music, but this is an incorrect term. The correct term is ‘free-to-use music’. To clear up confusion, you first need to know what copyright means. This is a form of intellectual property that protects creators of original works, so that an original song, track, tune or bed can’t be used or distributed without the creator or composer’s approval. It is a legal device that affords the owner the right to copy, distribute, adapt and sell that music, and the composition is protected for many years.

As ‘intellectual property’, in many countries the copyright can be sold, transferred, or inherited, but the actual copyright still remains.

How does copyright apply to music?

A musical composition consists of music, and any words or lyrics. The ‘author’ of a musical composition is generally the composer and the lyricist, if there is one.  The copyright duration of composed music is the same in most countries as for books, paintings and other literary and artistic works: the author’s lifetime + 70 years. With the odd exception, any music composed by writers who died after 1949 will be protected by copyright.

So without a licence you can’t:

  • Reproduce the music or lyrics
  • Distribute the music or lyrics for free, or for profit
  • Perform the music or lyrics in public
  • Play a recording of the music or lyrics in public – even if you own a recording
  • Adapt or rearrange the work

If a composer died more than 70 years ago however, then the musical work is no longer in copyright and has fallen into the public domain. Public domain music could also be referred to as ‘non-copyrighted music’.

This means, if you want to use the original version of a piece by Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, for example, for a TV show, feature film, advertising or corporate, you don't need a synchronization licence to use the composition.

What about sound recordings?

Compositions whose period of copyright protection have expired are in the public domain. You can use these materials without asking permission – but you can never own them. However, sound recording copyright lasts in most countries for 70 years after the music is first released. So, whilst your chosen Mozart piano sonata might be out of copyright, the recording of it by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra that you want to use probably won’t be.

Visit the Classical Collection to see how the famous Classical works can be re-imagined for modern-day media usage. 

Is copyright-free music the same as royalty-free music?

No, these are not the same. Royalty-free means that you pay for a one-off licence to use the music, for a stipulated period, and you don’t have to pay a fee to the copyright owner. This does not make it ‘non-copyrighted music’ or 'no copyright music', as the music is still under copyright laws.

Using copyrighted music on YouTube

Creators beware – did you know that YouTube developed a Content ID system that can detect uploads of copyrighted music? If they find that you’ve misused content without a licence, your video can be blocked or taken down. The copyright owner can also track the video’s viewer statistics to determine whether you monetized the video – and if they should then claim royalties back from you. Using music without a licence is an infringement of copyright and could lead to legal action being taken against you.

Free-to-use music

Free-to-use music (also known as non-copyrighted music and no copyright music) is available, though in most cases there will be restrictions on how the music can and can’t be used.

So why should you look at licensing music? Well, obviously, there are far fewer options if you’re looking at copyright-free music or sounds – your creative freedom is going to be limited. And bear in mind that if a mass of creators are taking tracks from the same pool, then those tracks are going to get overused. Why sound exactly like everyone else?

If you want to use current music, then it’s likely to be poorer quality in the free-to-use arena. Plus, you still have to be clear about whether or not you’re covered under the Creative Commons licence for the particular track you’re using. Why not be 100% sure that you’re covered legally by looking into licensing copyright-protected music instead?

What are the advantages of using paid-for music?

Audio Network’s music catalogue offers more than 175,000 specially composed production music tracks that are protected by copyright but can be licensed, in perpetuity, for TV and multiplatform use all around the world, and you can monetize your content without worrying about YouTube or other platforms blocking it or taking it down.

Musical styles

The Audio Network catalogue includes any musical style you might need, from the blues to breakbeat, and from rave to reggae. You can choose music with vocals or a cappella, something angelic, a more free-range, scat approach - or even yodelling!

We have a range of licences for creators and advertisers – including one-off payments for specific tracks – and we take the hassle out of the process.

Soundtracking your moods

The catalogue also spans every mood and emotion – from anger and aggression to anthemic, sexy or sad

Special occasions

Looking for music for special occasions such as birthdays and weddings? Our search facility enables you to find dedicated playlists. Plus, you can look for seasonal music at Christmas and the holidays, or more sombre tracks for funerals.

We have a range of licences for creators and advertisers – including one-off payments for specific tracks – and we take the hassle out of the process. 

For further information, watch our guide to clearing rights and production music:

See also in our Music Glossary:
Music rights
Royalty free music explained
Library music
Copyright free music
License free music

This was fist published 15/05/2019, and updated on 13/03/2019 and on 11/06/2020

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