In the words of the immortal Bob Marley, “When music hits you, you feel no pain.” Musicians are the crayons to the world’s colourful life.

Copyrights and related rights are the foundation of the music industry, ensuring that a musician’s work is protected and its integrity is upheld. How is an artist compensated for their efforts?

A music license is an agreement where a musician grants another party the right to exploit the economic rights in the song, in exchange for monetary compensation (Royalties). The Royalties are split between the Composer/Songwriter, Performing Artist, and Producer, as determined by an agreed Split Sheet.

Collective Management Organizations are tasked with remitting royalties to the musician according to the terms of the license and statutory fees. The musician is also at liberty to enter into licensing agreements with parties to negotiate independent rates.

What are economic rights?

For a copyright owner of musical works, the exclusive rights refer to the following [1]:

  1. The right to reproduce works, granting the copyright owner the ability to control the making of a copy of the work.
  2. The right to create derivative works grants the copyright owner the ability to control the transformation of their works into new works.
  3. The distribution right grants the copyright owner the ability to control how work or a copy of a work is transferred to others, whether by sale, rental, lease, or lending.
  4. The public performance right grants the copyright owner the ability to control how a work is publicly performed. Owners of rights to sound recordings have the exclusive right of public performance using digital transmission.
  5. The exclusive right to control the public display of works.

What are the types of music licenses?

  1. Public Performance License

A public performance license is an agreement between a music user (business) and the owner of a copyrighted composition or song that grants permission to play the song in public, online, or on the radio.

Public performance relates to any song, recording, or musical work being played in a public setting, for example, the music played in clubs, bars, or restaurants.

  1. Synchronization License

Any visual media content you create that contains someone else’s music requires a synchronization (sync) license.

The copyright holder of the music grants the license to allow the purchaser to incorporate the music in the video, such as in movies, video games, and TV commercials. This applies even if you are singing your version of the song.

  1. Master License

A master license is created for people who wish to use a sound recording to create a new piece. Often this is referred to as sampling.[2]

It also applies to using sound recordings in film, television, and commercials and is usually issued in conjunction with a sync license.

This distinction between Synchronization and a Master license [3]:

  • Synchronization licenses pay the composer for the right to sync their composition (music and lyrics) to a video;
  • Master licenses pay the owner of the specific recording you are using for your use of their recording

Here’s an example:

Bob Dylan has recorded a version of “Yesterday” by the Beatles. If an artist wants to use that in a video, she would pay Paul McCartney and any other copyright owners of the composition a fee and execute a synchronization license.

She would then make a master license agreement with Bob Dylan and any other performers or owners of the copyright of that recording and pay a fee to them.

  1. Mechanical License

 A mechanical license is needed for any physical reproduction of an artist’s work. Primarily this refers to the manufacturing of CDs or distribution of music in any tangible form. Artists, aka copyright holders, will have agreements with record labels, distributors, and publishers on the mechanical terms of their music, and are generally paid per copy.[4]

A mechanical license also applies where songwriters and music publishers are paid when other people use their music on a sound recording. It grants an artist permission to reproduce and distribute a song someone else wrote.

  1. Theatrical License

A theatrical license grants permission to use the music in a play, musical, dance, opera, narration, or other dramatic performance. This permission is also called theatrical rights and grand rights.

A theatrical license is required no matter how small a portion you use. The theatre production will require a theatrical license to pay the composer for the right to use the composition (song), and also a master license to pay the artists for the right to use the recording.

  1. Print License

A print license is an agreement that grants permission to rearrange, print, or display the music notes or lyrics of a song. A print license pays a royalty to the copyright holder of the composition (song). This is typically the composer or their publisher.


Licenses are an avenue for musicians to earn royalties and preserve the integrity of their work. Do not use someone’s music without their consent or paying for it. May the crayons keep colouring our world.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes, not legal advice.