Understand everything about royalty-free music

Royalty-free music is not as its name seems to indicate: free, and even less free as it suggests. You need toillustrate a content and you are looking for royalty free music?

In this article, we help you to sort out the real from the fake.

by | July 7, 2022

Goddess of Justice, Themis

Behind this term are three categories of music: so-called royalty-free music, music in the public domain and music under creative common licenses.

This is often the first category people look for to illustrate content.

By paying only once or by subscription, buyers acquire a licence to use the music. They can legally exploit a piece of music for a limited or unlimited period of time, for personal or commercial purposes, depending on the conditions provided, but they do not become the owners of the music.

Once the licence for the the royalty-free music purchased, you can use it on a multitude of media (always under the conditions)

Why do we say royalty-free music?

The term "royalty-free" is an abuse of language. Moral rights will always apply to the work of an author who will always retain his or her authorship rights. 

The same is true at international level thanks to The Berne Convention administered by theWorld Intellectual Property Organisation (composed of 191 member states).

Royalty free does not mean free and certainly not free. So you should always be careful when using "free" music. free" music on the internet. Indeed, almost all music is protected by music is protected by copyright. So most of the time, the music is NOT free of rights.

Ultimately, the term "royalty-free" means that the user will be free to use the music once he has paid for his licence. He has "released the rights". This is the same as for royalty-free images and platforms such as shutterstock, adobe stock etc...

Why the rise of royalty-free music on the internet?

The Internet and especially social networks have led to the massive distribution of all kinds of content that often requires the use of music. The era of podcasts, video platforms such as TikTok and others have given sound design an even more important dimension.

Royalty-free music libraries have therefore sought to facilitate access to music by granting low-cost licences. The user can then use this music on web platforms without being blocked by them.

Also, platforms such as Youtube have offered their own royalty-free music to allow creators to have different music online when editing.

Moreover, the players in the music industry (e.g. Sacem) have historically made the transfer of exploitation rights complex. This has allowed the "royalty-free" to make its way.

Finally, most people are unfamiliar with authors' rights and the functioning of Sacem. Thus, they think that they are the ones who will pay the rights to Sacem. However, it is the broadcasters who pay Sacem (TV channels, radio channels, bars, discotheques, shops, etc.) on the basis of numerous criteria: turnover, audience, etc.

Where can I find royalty-free music and is it really interesting?

Nowadays, when it comes to creating content and optimising its sound design, some people are looking for a free or cheap way to get so-called royalty-free music. 

There are multitudes of music library that can be found on search engines to obtain a licence to use a work. Among the well-known platforms, we can mention Epidemic Sound, Artlist or Audiio.

But beware, they will never be free. Often users who don't want to spend a cent will look in the public domain or in Creative Commons licences.

Music in the public domain

The public domain refers to all works of the mind and knowledge whose use is not or is no longer restricted by law.

Public domain music symbol

This symbol is used to indicate that a work is in the public domain but it has no legal value. The public domain is based on the intellectual property code, which in turn is based on the Berne Convention for the protection of literary and artistic works.

A piece of music falls into the public domain when the exclusivity of the work ceases, i.e. 70 years from 1 January of the year following the death of the author. It is therefore no longer necessary to pay royalties or seek permission to reproduce or use the work.

In other words, it is quite possible to put in music on hold, Beethoven's Third Symphony or music from before the 1950s.

Music under creative commons license

Creative Commons is a non-profit organisation based in the United States that provides licences also known as "creative commons". These licenses allow authors to give the right to exploit their works to third parties. You for example.

Creative Commons licences are based on copyright and allow copyright holders to choose to grant additional permissions to their music.

There are 4 additional permissions defining the different possible uses:

    The combination of these additional permissions creates 6 different licenses

    Licence Attribution CC BY

    The CC BY : Attribution license

    It allows other users to distribute, remix, adapt and develop your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation.

    Attribution License - Share under the same conditions CC BY-SA

    The CC BY-SA license: Attribution / Share under the same conditions

    It allows other users to remix, adapt and build on the music. They can use it for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and share their new creations under the same license.

    Attribution License - No Derivative Works CC BY-ND

    The CC-BY-ND license: Attribution / No modification

    It allows other users to re-use the music for personal or commercial purposes. However, it will be necessary to credit the work. If it is modified, it cannot be shared.

    CC-BY-NC Attribution-NonCommercial License

    The CC-BY-NC license: Attribution / Non-commercial

    It allows other users to remix, adapt and build on the music for non-commercial purposes, as long as they credit the author. They will not be obliged to share their new creations under the same licence but still for non-commercial purposes.

    Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License CC BY-NC-SA

    The CC-BY-NC-SA licence: Attribution / Non-commercial / Share under the same conditions

    It allows others to remix, adapt and use the music for non-commercial purposes, as long as they credit the author and the work created is under the same conditions.

    Attribution-NonCommercial-NoModification Licence CC BY-NC-ND

    The CC-BY-NC-ND licence: Attribution / No commercial use / No modification

    It is the most restrictive of the six main licences. It only allows users to download the work and share it as long as the author is credited. So no modifications of any kind and no commercial use.

    CC zero license

    The CC0 license: Creative Commons Zero

    It allows anyone to reuse, improve, modify without any restriction as long as the person respects the law. This licence is very close to the characteristics of the public domain and the Copyleft (open source) licence.

    What is the point of using royalty-free music?

    Often when creating our content, we don't think about the soundtrack. So we end up googling for free royalty-free music or using the music offered by our broadcasting platforms so that "it sounds good".

    Use royalty-free royalty-free musicTo use royalty-free music is to seek simplicity, provided that the conditions of use are respected.

    The advantages of using royalty-free music

    For many, the notion of copyright and the functioning of registered music (at Sacem for example) are unclear. So, for ease of use, they turn to royalty-free music. Some royalty-free platforms have implemented a very aggressive pricing policy. As a result, royalty-free music often appears cheaper. 

    For use on phone lines, royalty-free music allows the company to avoid paying the Sacem and the SCPA.

    The disadvantages of using royalty-free music

    The royalty-free music found on the Internet already convey an image and an emotion, sometimes of low quality and accessible to all. It is therefore very difficult to create a unique sound identity.

    Moreover, licensing royalty-free music does not mean that you own it. So you or your brand will not be the only one to exploit it.

    On many platforms, the right to use royalty-free music is linked to the subscription. So when you cancel your subscription, you no longer have the rights.

    Royalty-free music is not necessarily cheaper than music registered with the Sacem, for example. And above all, it does not generate any rights for the creators.

    Authors / composers and royalty-free music

    The massive development of this type of music impoverishes the entire artistic and cultural ecosystem. Indeed, the authors or composers of this music will never receive royalties when their music is broadcast on radio, TV etc.

    Why do they give their music away on these platforms then? Many live precariously and are willing to give up their music for a few euros. They then receive a fragment of the subscriptions paid by the users. This is also due to a lack of understanding of copyright.

    For others, it's a way of making themselves known: Cf video Seb la frite.

    How much does royalty-free music cost?

    Often, platforms offer subscriptions ranging from €10 for personal use to a few dozen euros for commercial use.

    However, when the music is to be used for television or radio, it is often noted "contact us". The subscription is therefore often intended for the web, but is not adapted to the major media.

    What are the dangers of royalty-free music?

    When we hear "royalty-free music"you think of free and unconditional. Unfortunately, this is totally misleading and many people have fallen into the trap. It is necessary to respect the copyright legislation of the author's country of residence in order not to be illegal.

    Legislation in France for royalty-free music

    The term "free of rights" does not exist in French legislation and is therefore contrary to the intellectual property code (articles L.111-1, L. 121-1, L. 131-3).

    Contrary to popular belief, the Creative Commons CC0 licence does not respect moral rights and it is therefore preferable to use the CC-BY licence.

    The Saint Maclou case on royalty-free music

    In 2009, the French company Saint Maclou signed a contract with MusicMatic France to distribute royalty-free music obtained from the Jamendo free music library.

    Unfortunately for the company, the SACEM and the SPRE, seeing the threat of a generalisation of the exploitation of royalty-free music, attacked it. The company did not comply with Article L214-1 of the Intellectual Property Code. It states that remuneration is obligatory when music is played in publicly accessible shops. Saint Maclou will therefore have to pay €120,000 to SACEM.

    Bookstore music or custom music?

    Whether or not it is free of copyright, music can be custom-made or available from a catalogue.

    Royalty-free is often associated with platform music, but you can use a composer. You must ensure that he or she is not registered with a collective management organisation such as Sacem. Indeed, when you register as an author/composer with Sacem, you give up the management of all your works.

    So, free of rights or not?

    As you can see, it all depends on who you are and what you do.

    As an individual, if you post cat videos on Youtube, it's best to get royalty-free music from a library.

    If you are a small content creator or a VSE, bookstore music is more affordable. Either royalty-free, or from Sacem-affiliated bookstores. 

    If you are an SME, ETI or a large group, then you should first have a customised sound identity. Then you will need some music from libraries to illustrate certain contents. It's a bit like creating a graphic charter and then taking out a subscription to an image bank. 

    And there, it is preferable to use music registered with the Sacem. For the simple reason that it is not more expensive, and that you will be supporting songwriters. Quite simply.

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