Who This Guide Is For

  • Producers that want to sample copyrighted sound recordings in their work.
  • Recording Artists that want to explore licensing options for their recorded projects.
  • Anyone seeking to use copyrighted sound recordings in their audio or audiovisual works.


What is a Master-Use License?
How to Obtain a Master-Use License
Other Licenses Required to Use Sound Recordings
Master-Use Rights in Record Deals

What is a Master-Use License?

A master-use license permits the licensee to use a copyrighted sound recording in a new project. Typically, licensees are seeking to use recordings in audiovisual projects or as a sample in a new audio recording. To understand master-use rights, it is important to have a basic comprehension of the difference between sound recordings and compositions. By obtaining a master-use license, the only rights being granted are to the sound recording. This means that any copyrighted composition embodied in the recording must be licensed separately.

Thus, a master use license is used between the owner of a sound recording or a piece of music and the producer of a film or other creative work. However, numerous parties, including record companies, often share ownership of a piece of music or sound recording, so all parties have to approve the use of music or master recordings that they jointly own. This music license agreement covers the scope of how the music will be used including the right to play or perform the music publicly as well as compensation and screen credits by the musician and producer.

How to Obtain a Master-Use License

Master-use licenses are obtained from the owner of the sound recording or someone approved to license intellectual properties on their behalf. This means that the first step in this licensing process is to identify the copyright owner of the sound recording.

Most record label contracts include a clause requiring the recording artist to give up their master rights to the record company, which leaves a large number of masters in the possession of record labels. However, some recording artists have the leverage to negotiate contracts either to ensure they retain their master rights or to regain them at the end of the agreement’s term. Additionally, there are independent artists that do not use record label services at all and thus do not face the issue of giving up the rights to their sound recordings.

There are various ways to locate the owner of a sound recording. The simplest method is to check the liner notes of the recording to see what record label, if any, is listed. Most record labels will have licensing contacts listed on their websites.

If the owner cannot be deciphered through the credits or liner notes, there are many databases available for public search. A Sonicbids blog post provides the following resources as a good place to begin a search for a sound recording’s owner:

*Note: List of artists, not copyright owners.

It is important to note that being unable to identify the copyright owner does not mean that a license is no longer required. Some services can be hired to search for copyright owners. Otherwise, the licensee may want to pick another recording to use. Again, being unable to locate a copyright owner is not a valid defense for infringement. Individuals who do not properly license sound recordings can be taken to court for copyright infringement.

Another important note is that ALL owners of a sound recording must approve of master-use licensing. Master-use license agreements typically include clauses that outline the terms for compensation, credit, representations, and warranties.

Other Licenses Required to Use Sound Recordings

A master-use license only grants permission to use a specific recording in a designated project. There are other licenses required in order to be sure that the use is entirely legal, depending on the context of the use.

A synchronization license (synch license for short) grants the right to synchronize a composition with an audiovisual work. As stated previously, master-use licenses only grant the rights to use a copyrighted sound recording. By obtaining a synch license and a master-use license, the rights to both the composition and the sound recording are granted for use within the project.

If an individual is seeking to use a portion of a copyrighted sound recording (a sample) in a new sound recording rather than an audio visual project, a synchronization license is not required. However, a mechanical license IS required for use of the composition. In this example, you will need both a master-use license and a mechanical license for use of the composition AND the sound recording.

Royalty free music is different in that you won't need to pay any royalty fees when licensing music. You may however need to pay a fee, either monthly or one time to use said music in your creative endeavors. Royalty free music providers pay the song creators so that the user doesn't have to do all the leg work themselves.

Read more about synchronization licenses and mechanical licenses.

Master-Use Rights in Record Deals

Master-use rights are often included in record deals. Typically, a record deal will include a clause that requires the artist to agree to give up their master rights in order to get an advance from the label to fund their project and release. In fact, master rights are often given up in these situations because record labels need to have them in order to have enough control to do their job for the artist. In some cases, the artist will begin to profit from the income streams of master licenses after (and if) the advance is paid in full through recoupment after royalties begin coming in.

Under the traditional business model for a record label, master recordings obtained from a recording artist have served as longterm assets and tend to provide the majority of revenue for a label. For example, Sony Music Entertainment owns the original master recordings of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Elvis, Johnny Cash, and many more. Due to the size and popularity of these artists, SME continues to earn royalties from the sale of their master recordings. Likewise, money earned from these master recordings allows the label to continue to front the cost of signing new acts with the hopes that a few will provide more high-earning longterm assets.

It is worth noting that this business model is changing in the modern music industry. Many recording artists choose to retain ownership of their masters and opt to partner with a "label services" entertainment company which provides the services of a record label (marketing, distribution, PR, etc.) while allowing the artist to retain control of their master copyrights.

As with any contractual clause, with the recording contract, there can be negotiations made if an artist wants to try and retain their master rights. In some cases, negotiations will result in a time period being set to limit the amount of time master rights are owned by the label.



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