Music Licensing: The Difference Between Public Performance and Synchronization Licenses

Music licensing is not rocket science, but it is also not intuitive.  If your company shares music externally on the internet, in an advertisement or at a conference, it’s very likely that the use of that music requires a license.  And even if your company is sharing music only within the organization, there may still be a music licensing requirement.

One of the first steps in understanding music licensing is knowing the difference between a song and a sound recording. 

A recorded song has two separate copyrights:

  1. There is a copyright in the song, which consists of a melody and any accompanying lyrics.
  2. There is a separate copyright in the sound recording, which is the recorded rendition of the song.

*Typically, but not always, there will be separate owners for the song and for the sound recording.  The song copyright is normally owned by the songwriter or the songwriter’s music publishing company, and the sound recording is generally owned by the record label that released that recording.

Music Licensing for Public Performances

Public Performance Licenses give permission to perform music in public.

The public performance of a song almost always requires a license.  In contrast, the license requirement to perform a sound recording in public are more limited, applicable typically only when the sound recording public performance is offered via the internet or via other digital means.  For these purposes, I’m talking only about performance licenses for songs.

If you play a song in a retail store, at a conference or in a restaurant, those are public performances of the song regardless of whether you render the performance by a live band, by a CD, by a DJ, or by your smartphone. That performance requires a public performance license.

Most public performance licenses are issued by one of the performing rights organizations (PRO).  In the United States, they are:

  • BMI
  • GMR (Relatively new, established in 2013.)

Each PRO controls a different catalog of songs.  Typically, the PRO will issue blanket licenses, allowing you to publicly perform any of the songs in that PRO’s catalog.

Going back to “I Will Always Love You,” let’s suppose you want to do a public performance of the song at your company’s trade booth on a tradeshow floor. You would need a public performance license from the copyright holder of the song. That song’s copyright holder, again, is Dolly Parton through her music publishing company, Velvet Apple Music.  Velvet Apple Music is affiliated with BMI for their public rights licensing needs.  So, if you have the appropriate blanket license from BMI, you can publicly perform “I Will Always Love You” as well as the other 8.5 million songs in BMI’s catalog.

The PROs make it easy to get public performance licenses.  ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC have online presences where you can determine the specific license that you need and pay for it right online.


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