If there’s one thing humans spend a lot of time thinking about, it’s who owns what.

Art is no exception, despite its nebulous nature. Copyright law is a labyrinth that most people aren’t ready to contend with. Instead, it makes sense to focus on what it means for you.

So if there’s a piece of music you want to use and you’re struggling to find your way through copyright law, this is the article for you.

Let’s take a look at the question “Is royalty-free and copyright-free the same?” to see how it all plays out.

There are some common misconceptions about how copyright works, so let’s dispel those first.

To begin with, copyright is not something a creator has to actively apply to their work. Laymen often confuse copyright with trademarks or patents by suggesting that someone who hasn’t copyrighted their work has no legal say over its use. They suggest that copyright follows the “finders, keepers” school of ownership.

This is incorrect. In fact, copyright is automatic, and applies from the moment a piece of original work becomes “fixed.” In music, that means any track written down or recorded has automatic copyright protection.

Once in copyright, the rights for that work belong entirely to the artist. No one has the right to use or modify it without their say-so.

So you can’t use copyrighted work and that includes almost everything. Damn. But wait, things aren’t that simple. Music can be royalty-free or even copyright-free.

An obvious question occurs. If copyright is automatic, how can things be copyright-free?

The answer is that, while copyright is automatic, a creator still has the final say in how copyright applies to their work. They don’t have to say anything to claim copyright, but they get to choose how others interact with their work.

There are many different ways a creator can allow someone to use their work. Someone making music for use as stock or samples has to create provisions for how copyright applies to their work when others use it. Otherwise, no one could use it without worrying about legal repercussions.

The simplest thing a creator can do is relinquish copyright completely. They can put their work in the public domain and say it belongs to everyone. That gives others free rein to use that work, even for commercial purposes.

Releasing music into the public domain makes it functionally the same as any work with lapsed copyright-like most classical music, for example.

And Royalty-Free?

In many cases, releasing work into the public domain isn’t desirable for an artist. They may not want to lose all control over their work. It’s harder for an artist to profit from their work when it’s copyright-free.

So artists will release their work under more restrictive terms that nonetheless give other artists permission to use their work. One option is to make their work royalty-free.

This means they relinquish the right to royalties. Royalties are the fees paid to an artist each time someone uses their music. Whenever you hear a famous band’s music in an ad, you can be sure they’re getting royalties for it.

Going royalty-free isn’t the same as making the track free to use, however.

When work is made royalty-free, it usually becomes available for use for a one-time fee. This fee may cover unlimited use of the work or its use for a specific project—this varies from work to work.

How Can I Use Royalty-Free Music?

Let’s say you find a track you like. The first thing to do is to check its license. If it says “royalty-free,” then you need to look into the terms of that license. With that, you can figure out how to use it.

You’ll normally need to pay a set fee to use the music, but you won’t have to pay royalties for its use. This usually works well for backing tracks, where the music isn’t the focus of the work. In cases like these, the creator licensing the track won’t want to pay every time they use it, as this soon adds up.

Watch out, though! Royalty-free can apply to two distinct kinds of use: personal use and commercial use. If you plan to make money from your project or use it as the basis for a product, you’ll need to ensure you have the license to use it commercially.

Anything Else I Should Know?

The reality is that we’ve only scratched the surface of copyright law, here. This isn’t a dichotomy—there are dozens of ways an artist can release some control over their work without turning it loose in the public domain.

Remember that ignorance of copyright law is no protection. If you want to use another artist’s music in your work, the onus is on you to make sure you have that right.

Lucky for you, this isn’t as hard as it sounds. You won’t need to go to law school. Instead, most creators will make clear which license they release their work under. In most cases, they also include the full details of that license. If in doubt, just read the license.

If you can’t see any details about copyright on the artist’s page, then assume that the work isn’t available for use. As we covered at the top of this article, copyright is opt-out, not opt-in. If they don’t say otherwise, the artist retains all rights to their work.

Perhaps you simply can’t resist using the work but aren’t sure about its licensing. In that case, always ask the artist.

Finally, you could opt for uncopyright music, which means you won’t have to worry about all this stuff. That’s the public domain, for you.

By now, you should have your answer to the question “Is royalty-free and copyright-free the same?” The answer is simpler than it appears. If in doubt, ask first!

Did you find this blog helpful? Be sure to check back often for more useful guides.

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