How to know if a song is copyrighted for use on YouTube

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You don’t have to be a YouTube Creator for long to discover that music is key, and that you can’t necessarily use any song you want for any purpose. You might have even found that out by being slapped with a copyright claim. That little note that says you can’t monetize your video because it contains copyrighted music. Knowing how to tell if a song is copyrighted right away can save you time, money and avoid the hassle of a claim. So how do you know if a song is copyrighted?

How to tell if a song is copyrighted on Youtube

The short answer is this: that song is copyrighted. If you jump on YouTube or Spotify, search for the music track and find it on there, it’ll be copyrighted in some manner. This means you’ll need to acquire the rights to use it.

YouTube recommends that you upload a video and set it to ‘private’ or ‘hidden’ before you publish it. This way YouTube can run its automated checks to spot for any copyright infringement.

Copyright simply means that only the Creator of a work (like a song, story, poem or video) has the right to make copies, unless that Creator extends permission. So every song is automatically copyrighted the moment it’s created. In today’s digital world, “making copies” means anything from dubbing a cassette tape to using a song on a YouTube video. So if you’re wondering how to know if a song is copyrighted, the simplest thing to do is to just assume it is.

How to check if a song is copyrighted

While it’s safe to assume that a song is copyrighted, there are a few ways to still check if you’re unsure. To check if a song is copyrighted you can:

1. Check if it’s in the public domain on PDINFO

If a song is in the public domain (more on that later), you’ll be able to check on the website PDINFO. You’ll be able to search by track or year to discover whether the song you want to use is in the public domain and available to use.

2. Check a video description on YouTube itself

There are two ways for you to check this. First of all, if you know the track you want to use, you can simply search for the title and artist on YouTube then, in the video description section, it’ll state who owns the license. All this information will be found in the section ‘Music in this video’.

The same goes for when you hear a track in another video and want to check if it’s copyrighted. You’ll just need to scroll down to the description and check to see what the song’s information is.

3. Upload a video as unlisted or private first to check

If you’ve got hold of a track, and you aren’t sure whether it’s copyrighted, you can always check by simply uploading the video. If you upload it as unlisted or private, YouTube’s Content ID will work its magic and let you know. If you don’t get a warning, you’re good to go, but if the track is copyrighted, you’ll get an alert. Word of caution however! Sometimes tracks aren’t added to Content ID by the rightsholder yet, but that could change in the future. Essentially this means that although your video will be fine for now, you may get a copyright claim at some point down the line.

how to know if a song is copyrighted

4. Check for a copyright mark in the file name or file information

Copyright has its own sign: ©

Check for this whenever you download a track or look at its file information. While it’s often rare to see a song title with a copyright sign after it, it can be a good indicator. It may well have it in the place you downloaded it from.

5. Pay the copyright experts

Finally, if you really aren’t sure and you have the money to spend, hire an expert. You can find individuals or whole companies that can help you with copyright.

So is every song copyrighted?

So this makes it sound like every song under the sun is copyrighted. While it’s safest to assume that almost all popular music will be copyrighted, not all music actually is. Some songs may not be subject to copyright if they are:

  • Older songs in the public domain
  • Songs under creative commons
  • Tracks that are royalty-free

All of these offer you the chance to use high-quality music that’s not subject to the same copyright laws.

how to know if a song is copyrighted

Not sure what any of that meant? Here’s a little more information:

Songs under public domain

Older songs can enter what’s known as the public domain. This means that sometimes when they’re old enough, they can be considered free from copyright. But how old do they really have to be?

  • Copyright of the song in relation to the publishing rights expires 70 years after the death of the songwriter
  • Copyright of the sound recording in relation to the mastering rights expires 70 years after the recording was released

This makes the pool of available tracks quite limited, but you can find some real gems available in the public domain. Don’t just assume that a song is in the public domain simply because it’s old though, some copyright owners still renew licenses for older tracks, and in some instances, where a song has been re-recorded you won’t be able to use that recording. Not sure what we mean? Here’s an example:

  • Mozart writes the iconic Eine kleine Nachtmusik in 1787
  • Mozart passed away in December of 1791, a little more than 70 years ago
  • The publishing right for that song is now in the public domain
  • An orchestra records a version of that son in 2010

You guessed it, you can’t use that particular recording of that score from 2010 as that will have its own recording rights.

Songs under creative commons licenses

Songs that fall under creative commons are technically still copyrighted, they’ve just been assigned a special license. This license means you can use them under certain conditions. You have to meet these terms when using the song, and this could be as simple as providing credit in the video description. Each song may have different requirements, so always double-check and don’t assume it’s a one size fits all.

Creative commons offers 6 different licenses at different levels of requirement. Some of the stricter ones won’t allow you to make edits or use a song for commercial purposes.

Royalty-Free Songs

Royalty-free songs are tracks that are free from royalties but that doesn’t mean they’re free as usually, you have to pay to get your hands on the song in the first place. When a song is free from royalties, it means you don’t have to pay for an ongoing license or additional uses, i.e. you aren’t going to have to pay every time someone watches your video. When you license a song with Lickd, for instance, you just pay once to get the track and you don’t have to pay any royalties on it. This makes it royalty-free.

Some royalty-free music can be more limited though, and may only allow a handful of uses or a time-limited period. You’ll find royalty-free tracks on the YouTube audio library, but these tend to be less popular and you may not find the particular song you’re after. Always read the small print on royalty-free music.

Learn more about this subject in the guide: What is royalty-free?

Can you use a cover of a popular song on YouTube?

A long-standing myth is that you can simply cover a song and you’re good to go, waltzing off into the sunset without having to worry about copyright infringement. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. This cover will just fall under a different type of copyright license. You can record and distribute a cover, sure, but you’ll need to be granted what’s known as a ‘mechanical license’. 

For YouTube, it can get even more complicated. If you’re adding a visual element, i.e. your video, you may need a ‘synchronization’ license too. This is all particularly important if you’re aiming to monetize your video. If you’re just covering a song for personal use, you’re good to go, but adding one to your YouTube video without a license? You could find yourself in hot water very quickly.

We’d recommend steering clear of covers. They’re a minefield you don’t want to try and traverse. You’re much better off using the real deal and licensing popular music through Lickd.

Can I use part of a song?

Again, there’s been a lot of stories that you can use a song as long as you just take a short clip or use sound effects. This again, sadly, isn’t true. Even if you just used a few short seconds you’re still going to fall under the same copyright restrictions as if you used the whole song. You still need to seek permission from the copyright holders and the original creator or obtain a license to use a song on your YouTube channel, whether it’s background music for a whole video or a few seconds for effect.

So I can’t use anything?

Don’t stress! There are plenty of ways to use royalty-free music in your YouTube videos, and you can even use many popular songs. Since every song is legally copyrighted automatically, the real question is what permissions has the owner of the song granted? i.e.: what are its usage restrictions? Luckily, you can find this out quickly and easily for most songs, right from YouTube’s Creator hub.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Click on your Creator icon in the upper right part of your YouTube home.
  • Click “Creator Studio”.
  • On menu on the left side of the screen, click “Creator”.
  • Click “audio library”.
  • Click “ad-supported music”.

Now you can see a huge library of music, and if you click on one of the songs, you’ll be able to get data like usage restrictions such as whether you can monetize a video, if there are any countries you can’t use the song in, and so on. There’s even a free music tab which will show you songs that have no restrictions. In most cases, you’ll be able to use a song, but you won’t be able to get in on the AdSense revenue.

But what if I do want to monetize my video?

How to know if a song is copyrighted

To use a song without restrictions so that you can monetize your YouTube video, you need to get permission from the owner(s) and pay a fee. This can be a daunting and expensive task, so Lickd has built a system to make it easy and affordable. Lickd negotiates with artists and labels ahead of time so that you don’t have to, gets good rates, and allows you to use a song without restrictions. In other words, you can use a song and monetize your video without running into a copyright claim. What’s more, Lickd has a catalog of over 1 Million hit songs you can easily browse right now. You even get 25% off if you sign up now. So go ahead, grab some music for your next project, and get back to creating! 

Now you know all about how to know if a song is copyrighted

That’s how to know if a song is copyrighted! We hope this article was helpful. Learn more by reading our expert guides on how to legally use copyrighted music on YouTube and how to avoid copyright claims on YouTube.

Content and SEO Marketing Manager

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