The Dangers of “Copyright-Free” Music

The Dangers of "Copyright-Free" Music Image

Recently, musician T-Pain announced the launch his Pizzle Pack collection. It’s a collection of some 162 tracks being offered both for free and royalty-free to streamers.

The announcement comes after the streaming service Twitch has faced backlash for its handling of an onslaught of music related Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) notices. In short, the music industry has been calling on Twitch to license the audio used by streamers and, until such a deal is reached, has been sending thousands of takedown notices for clips and streams.

The coverage of the release has been very kind to T-Pain, with various headlines saying that he has released “copyright-free” music for streaming.

However, that is not the case. Not only is T-Pain’s music still very much protected by copyright, there are many reasons why streamers may want to avoid using them for the intended purpose.

To understand why, we have to look at the exact terms T-Pain has licensed the tracks under and see why, as generous as this offer is, it is far from “copyright-free.”

Why Copyright-Free isn’t Copyright-Free

To understand what is going on, users need to look to T-Pain’s own legal disclaimer, which highlights just how limited the license to use the songs actually is:

I expressly reserve all rights to my music. I give you a limited revocable license to use my music in the background of your videos but you can’t record to my music, change it, or use it anywhere else. If you do, you’re violating my copyrights and that’s gonna get your ass sued.

T-Pain’s Legal Disclaimer

The disclaimer makes it pretty clear that there are plenty of ways to violate his copyright with these tracks. The truth is that he is ONLY making the tracks available as background music for videos. You cannot make videos featuring the music prominently, release covers of the tracks, sell CDs of the tracks, distribute the songs on streaming services and so forth.

In short, the only thing that is allowed is using them as background music in videos.

However, even that permission is limited due to one key word: Revocable.

Revocable, in this context, means that T-Pain can, unilaterally and at any time, rescind this deal. While I don’t believe that T-Pain would do that, the fact remains that he could.

Given that many of the recent DMCA notices have been on videos that are many years old, what happens if T-Pain changes his mind down the road? What happens if the rights to the songs are acquired by another company or are transferred to another party? There’s no guarantee this license will still be available.

Streamers and YouTubers alike could find themselves building their brand and image around these tracks only to have the rug pulled out from under them later.

To be clear, none of this is to say that you shouldn’t use these tracks in your work. However, it’s important that you are aware of all of the limitations of the license. You may feel these are risks and limitations that are worthwhile, but it is important to be aware of them.

To further clarify, the problem isn’t T-Pain and what he did or said. He was extremely clear about the terms of his license and is making a very generous gesture to help streamers and YouTubers. The problem is that much of the coverage of this release can give some false impressions to those that don’t read the fine print.

However, this problem is nothing new.

The Difference Between “Copyright Free” and “Royalty Free”

Copyright Free

Back in June, we discussed the difference between “Copyright Free” and “Royalty Free” content.

However, for the purpose of this article, it’s adequate to say that “Copyright Free” means public domain content or content with no copyright restrictions. Royalty free simply means that it’s licensed in a way that a user doesn’t have to pay ongoing royalties to continue using the content.

Royalty free content is very much protected by copyright and is covered under a license. That license might require a fee to use the work, just not ongoing royalties after that fee is paid.

That said, what T-Pain is offering is royalty-free music that is also free to start using (for the limited purposes permitted). It is also a license that can be revoked at any time by T-Pain or any other rightsholder in those tracks.

This is in stark contrast to what musician and parodist Tom Lehrer did back in October, where he placed his music into the public domain (or as close as he could). His music is, functionally, completely copyright-free and can be used for any purpose (at least his compositions and lyrics).

T-Pain is doing something vastly different from Tom Lehrer and it’s important to understand that difference if you plan to use the tracks. However, this is the danger of misrepresenting “Royalty Free” tracks as “Copyright Free” as it can lead people to think they have a more broad license than they do.

And, as T-Pain himself said, “that’s gonna get your ass sued.”

Bottom Line

Music licensing is very complicated. It’s the product of over a hundred years of technological and legal changes that have seen us move from printing compositions to be played in person an incredible library of recorded music available via streaming services.

In short, music licensing is difficult but modern expressions and lingo aren’t helping to clear the air. Many, many YouTubers and streamers are moving forward with projects genuinely believing they have rights in a work that they do not.

Some of that confusion, to be frank, is sheer stupidity. Much of it, however, is understandable.

If you are a streamer or YouTuber, the best thing you can do right now is to start getting savvy about copyrights broadly. Get up to speed on music licensing, understand the truths about fair use, study how the YouTube and Twitch copyright systems work.

If you don’t get savvy now, you may well get a crash course after your channels are deleted.

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