During a time where almost everything is being done virtually, it is more important than ever that we inform ourselves on copyright law and the licenses and permissions needed to lawfully conduct our desired activities in a virtual environment. I don’t know about you, but I really miss going to live musical performances. Fortunately, I can still get my fill of musical delight through a variety of live streamed virtual events and performances. So, in hopes that it will encourage you to host your own events and further satisfy my craving, I am going to walk you through what’s needed (legally, not artistically—unfortunately I’m a terrible artist) to put on a live streamed audiovisual event.

It’s important to note that this blog post is written under the assumption that your performance will not constitute Fair Use, that you are not using materials in the Public Domain, and that you are not using materials you created entirely on your own. This post is also inapplicable to dramatic/theatrical performances, namely, musicals.

To start, you’ll want to consider whether or not you need a public performance license. If you’re going to be live streaming, you’ll likely need a public performance license. These licenses are typically provided by the four Public Rights Organizations (PROs) listed below. To figure out which PRO to use, you should search their websites or contact them to find out if the songs you are using are registered with their organization. Sometimes you may have to use more than one PRO.

  1. ASCAP—American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers (https://www.ascap.com/)
  2. BMI—Broadcast Music, Inc. (https://www.bmi.com/)  
  3. SESAC—Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (https://www.sesac.com/#!/)  
  4. GMR—Global Music Rights (https://globalmusicrights.com/)

It’s worth noting that most popular streaming sites (like Facebook, Youtube, and Instagram) generally pay licensing fees to PROs. So, if you intend to stream via one of those and you have checked to make sure all of your songs are registered at ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and/or Global Music Rights, you may not have to get a Public Performance License. That being said, it never hurts to check with the streaming service you are using or a PRO to be sure.

You should also consider obtaining a Master License if you are using a sound recording from a song that you do not own. If you are using your own recording or playing instruments live without a recording, a Master License is not necessary. To obtain the license, you will need to contact the licensing or business and legal affairs department of the record label that owns the specific recording you want to use.

Additionally, a Synchronization License is necessary if you are synchronizing music with visuals (i.e. a video performance). You can get this license from the music publisher. The PROs listed above have databases that may be able to help you identify the music publisher, however, they do not grant Synchronization Licenses.

Now that you know which licenses you will need and where to get them, it’s time to talk about negotiation, payment, and timing. Obtaining proper licensing takes time. It’s really important that you begin this process as soon as possible. Seriously, don’t wait! When you contact the applicable agencies and individuals about obtaining a license, make sure to provide an abundance of details. Include things like:

  1. Who you are (what your credentials are, what your organization’s mission is, etc.);
  2. What work of theirs you intend to use (how much of it and which parts);
  3. How you plan to use the work (commercial v. non-commercial, good cause, etc.);
  4. When you plan to use the work and for how long (how many performances);
  5. Where you plan to use the work; and
  6. Why you are using their work.

Prepare a persuasive argument for why you should be able to obtain the requisite licenses/permissions and at what cost (this is especially important if you are a non-profit organization working with a low budget).

That’s it! Simple, right? Maybe not as simple as you wished, but the PROs and other agencies out there can help to make the process fairly seamless. Art and music are fundamental to our happiness and growth as a society. It’s important we give credit where it’s due to support our amazing artists. Who knows, maybe some day that amazing artist will be you!