Licence-free music

A video editor wearing headphones sit at a computer screen editing

Looking for licence-free music for your videos? Don’t make the mistake of thinking that, just because music’s available to stream for free on sites like Spotify, you can use it for your own projects. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Copyright can be a minefield for the unwary, so here’s our guide to the ins and outs of copyright-free, royalty-free and ‘creative commons’ free music.

What is licence-free music?

To explain licence-free music, you first need to know what copyright means. This is a form of intellectual property, according to copyright law, that protects original work and authorship, 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 – even if it’s never registered with the copyright office.

As ‘intellectual property’, 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 as for books, paintings and other literary and artistic works: the author’s lifetime + 70 years. With the odd exception, any music composed over the last 70 years will be under copyright.

So you can’t do the following:

  • 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 the 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. 

This means, if you want to use a piece by Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, for example, with a TV showfeature filmcommercial or corporate, you don't need a synchronization licence. 

Discover our Classical Collection to see how the great Classical works can be re-imagined for modern day media usage. 

What is non-copyrighted music?

Creative materials that aren’t protected by copyright are in the public domain. You can use these materials without asking permission – but you can never own them. However, sound recording copyright lasts for 50 years after the music is first released and, in what is a very complicated area, different types of music require different rights. So, whilst your chosen piece from Mozart’s Piano Concerto might be out of copyright, the recording of it by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra that you want to use won’t be.

Is copyright-free the same as royalty-free?

No, these are not the same. Royalty-free means that you pay for a one-off licence to use the music and you don’t have to pay a fee to the copyright owner. As an example, let’s say you’ve purchased a royalty-free licence for music that you’re using for a video on your YouTube channel. You’ll pay one, unique price, whether the video has 100 views, or 100,000 – and you can use the music for a day, or ten years.

Read more on royalty-free music. 

What is ‘Creative Commons’ music?

Creative Commons refers to a system that allows you to legally use some ‘rights reserved’ music, movies, books, plays, articles, blogs, sites and images for free. In terms of music, composers or musicians could use a Creative Commons licence to allow people to legally share and build upon their songs and tracks online, or use them in videos. For example, you could use a track that’s licensed under ‘Creative Commons’ for a video on YouTube or Facebook that you’re looking to monetise. This wouldn’t be the case if, for example, you were using a track that’s subject to copyright – the royalties have to go to the composer.

The licence enables the person who has created the music to retain their copyright, whilst others make use of it. Every Creative Commons licence works worldwide, and lasts as long as applicable copyright lasts.

Can I use any track with a CC licence?

Well, almost. It depends on what exactly you’re using it for. There are, in fact, six different types of Creative Commons licences, which enable the author or composer to establish the limitations on how their music is used.  The licences all grant the ‘bassline rights’, such as the right to distribute the copyrighted work worldwide for non-commercial purposes, and without modification. The six types are differentiated by whether you’re permitted to use them commercially, and also whether or not you can alter them by, for example, remixing them. When you’re looking for music covered by CC licences, each track is usually accompanied by an icon, which will clarify how you’re allowed to use it.

All of the licence categories require that you attribute the artist in order to use the music – ie, put their name in the video description, or on-screen within your video.

Creative Commons Licences explained

1/ [BY] By Attribution – the most flexible CC licence, this permits all uses of the original work (distribution, remixing and commercial use), as long as it is attributed to the original author. [NB – Attribution is a core of all six licenses]

2/ [BY-SA] By Attribution – Share Alike

This licence lets others remix, tweak, and build upon the original work, even for commercial purposes, as long as you credit them. If you do change the work, then your new creation must be licensed under identical terms – hence ‘Share Alike’.  

3/ [BY-ND] By Attribution – No Derivatives

Licensed works are free to use/share with attribution, including commercially. However, under this licence, synching music to images amounts to transforming the music, so you can’t legally use a song under a CC No Derivative Works licence in your video.

4/ [BY-NC] By Attribution – Non-Commercial

Licensed works are free to use/share/remix with attribution, but you’re not permitted to use the original work commercially.

5/ [BY-NC-SA] By Attribution – Non-Commercial – Share Alike

Does not permit commercial use of the original work, but you can remix, tweak or build on it, as long as you credit the artist.

6/ [BY-NC-ND] By Attribution – Non-Commercial – No Derivatives

This is the most restrictive of the CC licences, only allowing you to download the work and share it (with attribution); you can’t change it, or use it commercially.

creative commons

(Image via)

Licence-free music for your videos

So, there are clearly lots of options when it comes to royalty-free and licence-free music. But it can still be confusing. Is there an easy way to make your decision about what music to go for?

What are the pros of using ‘free’ music?

  • Obviously, you don’t have to pay for it
  • There are lots of sites where you can find it
  • It’s convenient to download
  • It’s great for adding a soundtrack to personal projects
  • You don’t have to attribute it

What are the downsides of using ‘free’ music?

  • You’ll still have to check the licence and understand it – there are six different types of Creative Commons licence, and each has different T&Cs
  • A ‘free’ licence can change at any time to become a paid licence
  • If it turns out your track is under copyright, then YouTube’s Content ID algorithm can detect you don’t have the rights to use it
  • This can lead to your video being muted, blocked or taken down – or in the worst-case scenario, a potentially costly lawsuit
  • You won’t be able to monetize your video or use the music in a professional video
  • You may find that lots of other creators are using the same track

Which are the best licence-free music libraries?

Check out this video for some tips on the best sites for finding copyright-free and royalty-free music:

I’m still confused – is there a simpler way of getting music?

We get it – licencing is hard. The other option is to pay a subscription to a music service, which takes the uncertainty out of choosing tracks. You’ll know they’re licensed for use, they’re better quality and, perhaps best of all, you’ll have a lot more choice – and you’re far less likely to hear them on anyone else’s videos.

If you’re looking to get to the next level, in terms of content, engagement and monetisation, then upgrading to paid-for music is a must. Audio Network’s music is created by internationally renowned artists, composers and producers – and recorded in the world’s best studios.

Audio Network’s Creator+ Licence costs from as little as £6.99 a track. Your licence allows you to use each individual track in one project or video and covers all sync and dubbing rights (but not performance rights.) Our search tools make it really easy to find exactly what you want, and you can download 10 free taster tracks from our catalogue of over 150,000 top quality edits. Get started right now!

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