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A Guide to... Copyright, Fair Use, and Licensing: Music

Copyright Basics for Music

The Two Types of Copyright-Protected Works (see for more information)

When you record a song, you may be creating two works that are protected by copyright: a musical work and a sound recording. A sound recording and the music, lyrics, words, or other content included in the recording are separate copyright-protected works. These works are subject to different rules and are commonly owned and licensed separately.

  • A musical work is a song’s underlying composition along with any accompanying lyrics. Musical works are usually created by a songwriter or composer.
  • A sound recording is a series of musical, spoken, or other sounds fixed in a recording medium, such as a CD or digital file. Sound recordings can be created by the recording’s performer, the producer, or others. Note that there is no public display right for sound recordings and the public performance right is limited to “digital audio transmissions,” for example, digital streaming.

Using Someone Else's Work

Using someone else’s work - from the US Copyright Office (

Being inspired by other works is intrinsic to the creative process. Musicians often use other works to create new compositions, public performances, and recordings. It’s important not to assume that you can freely use other works. Here are some important copyright principles to keep in mind.

Generally, to use the sound recordings or musical works of another artist, you must:

For more information, reference our handout “Sampling, Interpolations, Beat Stores and More: An Introduction for Musicians Using Preexisting Music.


  • There’s no hard and fast minimum amount of music you can use without getting permission when you need it.
  • When you plan to use someone else’s work, for example when recording a cover song, always compare all of your intended uses with the rights of the other work's rightsholder and make sure you are lawfully engaging in each use.
  • Trying and failing to contact the rights holder is not a substitution for permission. Copyright owners often have representatives in charge of licensing their works and certain types of uses of their works. This might be, for example, a music publisher or performing rights organization.