The Inside Track: A Quick Guide to Music Copyright as it Exists Under UK Law

Posted on July 19th, 2013 by in The Inside Track


For this edition of The Inside Track, we have a guest post from James Argyll, a student of music production and library music who blogs on music related issues for Imagem PM.

Even before the internet, the issue of music copyright was a huge issue. But in the last 15 years, what was a serious problem has become catastrophic, with most recording artists now earning less than 6% of their income from recorded music, according to a recent study. Understanding the legalities of audio copyright is a valuable way to know your rights if you’re an artist yourself, or otherwise to protect the rights of those you listen to. We’ve all the heard the stories of great musicians who’ve signed away the rights to their best-selling song. By understanding some basic copyright laws we can try to prevent that from ever happening. The US Institute for Policy Innovation recently reported that an estimate for the loss to the US economy for pirated music was about $12billion, with a corresponding job loss of 70,000 positions.

What is music copyright?

Copyright is a legal concept, protected by most governments, which recognises the legal right of the creator of an original piece of work to claim ownership of, and financial returns arising out of, a piece of intellectual property. In many cases, it is territorial and may only last for a limited time. Importantly, songs contain two pieces of intellectual property, i.e. the music and the words. Both these are illegal to copy, lend, perform or adapt with compensation to or permission from the originator(s).

How do musicians get their money?

Monies earned via the use of an artist’s music are generally referred to as ‘royalties.’ In the UK, two different but related organisations handle the collection of royalties. The PRS of Performing Rights Society tend to the actual songwriters and composers, as well as music publishers. The PPL or Phonographic Performance Ltd handle the rights of those who produce the music, i.e. the record labels and artists. Radio stations or shops and restaurants who wish to play music in public have first to apply for licences from both these non-profit organisations so that the relevant people can get paid.

How to use other people’s music legally and within copyright


First, figure out how much you can afford and select the types of music you want to use. Whether you’re making a short film or video which needs some musical accompaniment, starting your own podcast, or planning on playing some tunes in your restaurant. Call the PRS helpline if you’re unclear and they’ll tell you how to proceed.

Apply for your Licence

Avoid legal pitfalls or using music illegally by applying for your licence via the PRS and PPL websites. Once you’re signed of, you can turn those tunes up as loud as you like!


If you’re a radio station or larger organisation, you’ll want to negotiate a blanket agreement, allowing you to use unlimited amounts for a single annual fee.

Terms of Copyright

Under UK law, the terms of copyright for music last for a period of 70 years from the end of the calendar year when the person dies. In the case of a specific sound recording, this is protected for 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which it was recorded.

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