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  • What Is Royalty Free Music For Video Games?

    [05.20.21]
    - Kent Carter
  • When game developers begin searching production libraries for the music that will make their video game soundtracks stand out, they are almost certain to encounter a common, two-word selling point:

    Royalty-free.

    There it is... a beacon amidst the noise luring them with its promise of a painless licensing experience.

    The attraction is understandable. As a game developer, you want to make sure that once you license a music track, you're not going to be asked for more money down the line. You simply want the kind of agreement that prevents anyone from showing up at your door demanding more pay should your game become a smashing success.

    When music is described as royalty-free, it creates the impression that nobody's collecting any such earnings from it, but the reality is actually a bit more complicated than that.

    See, the term itself is rather a misnomer. As longtime entertainment attorney Ben Laski explains, the words ‘royalty-free music' - despite appearing practically everywhere in music licensing - are a marketing term rather than a legal term. Almost certainly somebody is paying for the rights.

    So when most of the music for gaming on the internet claims it is royalty-free, what does that actually mean? And - more important - what should game developers know as they look to license royalty-free video game music?

    A Breakdown of the Rights Associated with Music

    The first step to finding these answers is having an understanding of the rights that are attached to music. In order to use a piece of music legally, you must secure the following two rights:

    • Master Sound Recording - The right to reproduce a specific recording of a song. A master recording refers to a complete, original recording of music used to create copies and often controlled by a record label or a library acting as one. This is the audio asset itself in your game.
    • Synchronization - The right to synchronize, sometimes called "re-recording," a song or a piece of music with other media. Synchronization rights must be obtained from the copyright owner of the music, typically the music's publisher. In your game, this is the right to have it included as part of the player's experience.

    Thankfully, the licensing agreements used by most reputable production music libraries cover these rights, so anyone working with them is cleared, whether you're a developer selecting your next video game soundtrack, a TV producer seeking music for a new series or a corporate brand marketer securing a song for a product's commercial, to name a few.

    Beyond these initial rights, however, there are two other rights associated with the composition (the intellectual property of the music). These "back-end" rights are what generate royalties:

    • Performance - The right to perform copyrighted music whether broadcast or streamed. This traditionally applies to TV, internet, radio and streaming services such as Spotify, YouTube and Facebook. The royalties for performance rights are collected by performance rights organizations (PROs) like ASCAP, BMI, PRS and SESAC, and are typically split 50/50 between the music's composer and publisher.
    • Mechanical - The right to reproduce a piece of copyrighted music in any number of formats. While this began with radio plays or duplication onto CDs, DVDs, vinyl or tapes, it's now also applied to use on streaming music services like Spotify and Apple Music, as well as streaming video platforms like Facebook and YouTube. Again, the royalties are split between songwriter and publisher, but mechanical royalties are collected and distributed by mechanical rights agencies such as the Harry Fox Agency and Music Reports.

    When it comes to performance and mechanical rights, this is where the devil is in the details. Most music libraries claiming to be royalty-free do, in fact, retain these back-end rights for themselves and the composers. This is typically acknowledged somewhere in the fine print of their license agreements. How can they legally say this, you ask? I will explain a little later in this article.

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