Any visual media content you create that contains someone else's music requires a synchronization license. The copyright holder of the music grants the license, and your cost ranges from a handful of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the song and how you are using it.
No law forces a copyright holder to grant a synchronization license to anybody willing to pay for it. Whether it's your kid's performance on YouTube or a commercial you've produced, it's a good idea to look into a synchronization license before you put a song in your video. The sync license might be expensive or, in some cases, the copyright holder might not agree to grant one.
Do I Need a Synchronization License?
If you are releasing a video, commercial, presentation, film, or TV show that contains music that you didn't write yourself, you need to contact the owner of that music and secure a synchronization license. This applies even if you are singing your own version of the song.
If you've already scored your video with someone else's recording, you might actually need two licenses: a synchronization license (for the song) and a master recording license (for the recording of the song). Without these licenses, you don't have official permission to “sync" the music to your visual content.
How Do I Get a Synchronization License?
The copyright owner can grant a synchronization license for a song. If you're not sure who the copyright owner is, start your investigation with one of the performing rights organizations, such as ASCAP or BMI. In most cases, the copyright owner is the songwriter or the publisher. Songwriters and publishers will want as much detail as possible regarding the intended use of your video before agreeing to grant a sync license.
How Much Does a Synchronization License Cost?
It's stunning how vast the range is for the price of a synchronization license. Top artists/songwriters might charge hundreds of thousands of dollars for synchronization licenses, but an independent artist looking to build exposure might just charge a few hundred bucks or even less.
The copyright holders usually demand to know everything regarding how you're using their music, such as who will see it, what the context is, how widely you will distribute it—and all of that information factors into the price. The copyright holder has no obligation to grant the license, so they could deny your request outright.
Who Gets Paid?
The sync fee goes directly to the songwriter or, if a publisher owns the copyright to a song, there's likely an agreement where the publisher collects the revenue on behalf of the songwriter for a contracted fee.
With the advent of streaming music and plummeting record-sales revenue, sync fees are one of the few areas left in the music business where songwriters can still make a decent amount of money. Indeed, artists clamor for sync license fees connected to the placement of their music on commercials and TV shows.
What Happens if I Can't Get a Synchronization License?
If you're releasing just an audio recording of someone's song, all you need is a mechanical license, and the copyright owner must grant you that mechanical license once you pay the fee.
But when it comes to visual content containing someone's song, the copyright owner could deny your request for a synchronization license, regardless of how much money you're willing to pay. If you release your content without securing the sync license, you risk a court action for copyright infringement.
Do I Need a Sync License for YouTube?
While it might feel overboard to secure a synchronization license for posting a video of your kid singing a popular song on YouTube, some famous artists will force people (through their operatives) to take down these videos. Other artists welcome video versions of their songs by different bands/singers. And many copyright owners have agreements in place with YouTube where they share in YouTube's revenue in exchange for allowing video postings of their music.
Ultimately, your best bet is to contact the copyright owner to ensure that you do whatever is required to avoid copyright infringement.