How free is royalty-free music?

Royalty-free music is a great option for loads of creators; it’s cheap, there are no apparent legal hassles and you just pay a one time fee to use the music as you please. However, as a creator it is important to understand how royalty-free music works and that you are using music in a sustainable way that doesn’t screw you, or the composer over. How true is the term ‘’royalty-free’’ and do creators understand what they are licensing?

To get straight to the point, we are not talking about money here. This blog will be about rights and how free of rights royalty-free music truly is. In this blog we will talk about the fundamentals of royalty-free music, how royalty-free music works and about common misconceptions concerning royalty-free music.

A Quick Breakdown

Before diving into who owns which rights and how royalty-free music works, it is good to know the fundamentals of royalty-free music and which organizations are involved when it comes to using music made by an artist or composer.

What are music royalties?

Music royalties are payments made by Performance Rights Organizations (PRO’s) to rights holders for the use of their music. These payments compensate composers, songwriters, performers, and publishers for the public performance or broadcast of their music. Music royalties can also come from various other sources such as mechanical royalties from sales or digital downloads, or synchronization royalties for the use of music in TV shows, movies, commercials, etc.

What is royalty-free music?

Fun fact: The original concept of “royalty-free” stemmed from stock photography and footage. It meant that content could be licensed once for unlimited future usage, without the need for additional payments per use. In essence, this is still what ‘’royalty-free’’ means, also in music licensing.

However, as the term was simply adapted into music licensing, it led to confusion among creators. While “royalty-free” music typically involves a single upfront fee for unlimited usage, doesn’t mean the music is completely free of any rights or obligations, or for that matter ‘’royalty-free’’. There may still be certain restrictions or terms of use associated with royalty-free music licenses.


Performance Rights Organizations. These are organizations that collect license fees for the rights holders of music. These organizations are all over the world and most countries have their own PRO. They work together to collect license fees from platforms and companies, in order to distribute the royalties to their registered rights holders for the use of their music.

This goes from streaming platforms to radio stations and from the local bar in your neighborhood to social media platforms. They pay the PRO’s, so the rights holders of music can get paid for the use of their music.

How royalty-free music really works

As we have established, royalty-free music doesn’t have much to do with actual music royalties. It is simply a way of saying you’re paying a one-time fee for the unlimited use of a particular piece of music for the purposes agreed upon in the licensing agreement. This doesn’t mean the license isn’t legally binding or incorrect, it only means the term ‘’royalty-free’’ music is a bit confusing. It does mean it’s really important to read a license carefully before agreeing on anything.

It’s crucial to recognize that the term “royalty-free” doesn’t indicate that there are no legal obligations or restrictions associated with that particular piece of music. Though you are granted the legal permission to incorporate the music in your creative projects and – if the license is up to standards – shouldn’t have to worry about any infringements, it is important to note the rights holder(s) of that particular piece of music still hold most rights.

The rightsholder(s) of the music still have their Pie Of Music Rights

So much for ‘’royalty-free’’, right? Again, do not worry that you are not allowed to use the music as agreed upon or that you are infringing upon the right holders rights when using the music legally. But it is important to know which rights are involved, which rights you do have and which rights you don’t have when agreeing upon a royalty-free music license.

We will also break-down which rights you have as the licensee and what those rights mean. Each license is different and it depends on the license what is agreed upon exactly, but the following rights are usually granted within a royalty-free music license:

  • Usage Rights

    With a royalty-free license, the licensee obtains certain usage rights to the music as outlined in the license agreement. These rights typically include the right to use the music in specific projects, such as videos, podcasts, games, presentations, or advertisements, without the need for additional payments or royalties.

  • Non-Exclusive Rights

    A royalty-free license usually grants non-exclusive rights to the licensee, meaning that multiple individuals or entities can license and use the same piece of music simultaneously. The rights holder retains the ability to grant licenses to other parties for the same music.

  • Perpetual Rights

    In many cases, royalty-free licenses provide perpetual rights to the music, meaning that the licensee can continue to use the music indefinitely once licensed, without any time limitations.

  • Partial Creative Control

    While the licensee has the right to use the music in their projects, they are typically not permitted to modify or alter the music in any significant way without obtaining additional permissions from the rights holder, unless agreed upon within the license.

    Now you know how royalty-free music actually works, we will debunk some misconceptions about royalty free music.

Misconceptions about royalty free music

Royalty free music is not registered with a PRO and therefore royalty-free:


As I am writing this, I am actually amazed that some libraries or companies market royalty-free music as music that is not registered with a PRO. This is simply not true. A lot, if not most royalty-free music IS registered with a PRO. Don’t worry though, this doesn’t mean you cannot use the music with a royalty-free music license.

Royalty-free music means no one has to pay royalties:


Does this mean you as the creator should pay those royalties? No. However, the platform, organization, company or exhibitor where you publish or upload your work should. It is good to check if the platform or exhibitor you are uploading your work on pays these license fees to a PRO. Otherwise the composer that created the royalty-free music misses out on his earnings.

Royalty free music means there aren’t any rights involved:


When a piece of music has been created, automatically there are rights involved, even when you are not registered with a PRO. If you use the music any other way than what is agreed upon, legal issues will arise.

Royalty free music means there will be no legal issues whatsoever


It’s really important to check if the license you agree upon does not put you in a tough spot in case of any legal issues. As a composer myself, I didn’t sign many contracts because if any legal issues would appear, all the costs would be mine and I would have to pay loads of extra money if the issue couldn’t be resolved. A license fee can seem like an easy way of obtaining music, but be sure to read the small print before agreeing to anything.

How to do royalty-free music the right way

Royalty free music remains a great way of obtaining music without spending a lot of money. If you license royalty-free music, be sure to check if the company licensing the music is not beating around the bush. Now you know what royalty-free means, make sure they’re not making it look like a free pass to use music with no rights or royalties involved. It doesn’t mean royalty-free music is a bad thing, just be on your guard.

I know how hard it can be to understand everything about music-licensing, but never assume a license complies with all legal aspects just because it is a well known company or because you don’t understand the terminology. If you’re not sure, always let a jurist or lawyer look at the license. Also, when you publish or upload your work anywhere, be sure to check if the platform or exhibitor is paying PRO’s for the use of music. This way you can create a sustainable environment for both creator and artist, where everyone gets their fair share.

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