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How do I secure the rights to use a song in my show?

If you’re a writer, there’s a good chance that you’ve written something for your play and thought of a song that would set the scene perfectly, or the exact song a character would sing at karaoke, or play at a dinner party, or dance around their bedroom too. Music is a great tool for storytelling, whether it’s through composing original music, or adding in a tried and true top 40 radio hit. If it’s the latter that you would like to use in your play, there are important copyright laws and processes that must be followed that all playwrights should know. So let us break it down for you:

First things first, unless a song is in the public domain (meaning it was published at least 95 years ago) a theatrical license is needed from the copyright holder in order to use any snippet of any song as a part of the show’s plot. The theatrical license may also be called grand rights or theatrical rights.

A license is needed to use the song in the show, and a master license is also needed in addition in order to pay the artists for the particular recording you’re using. Other licenses that might be necessary depending on circumstance include a print license, if you plan to display the composition in any way, and a synchronization license, if you make a video recording of your production.

A simple Google search can help you find the copyright holder of whatever music you are trying to use, and obtaining the license is handled directly with them! Pretty simple!

The license ensures that the copyright holder or owner of the music gets paid – usually the composer or publisher, but sometimes a third party who purchased the rights from the composer or publisher is also involved.

Make sure your requests for copyrights are made several months in advance of any planned productions, because these things can take time! If, for some reason, you are denied the rights to the music you want to use, you should definitely not use it in your production! Many publishers and copyright holders have people whose job it is to seek out copyright violations!

Adding music to your production can enhance the mood, create an emotional response, or indicate a certain time period or setting, and is an important addition to a lot of theatrical works, so it’s important to make sure you’re obtaining permission in the correct way!


P.S. Want to learn more about music licensing? Check out The TheaterMakers Studio for Q&A calls, webinars, and courses taught by experts in the industry! Try it out FREE for 30 days now. Click here.

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