Yesterday I wrote a blog post about open source software licenses for Slingshot, my law firm’s legal service for start-ups and small businesses (I promise this post is about music).

The post talks about open source software license incompatibility. In short, if you combine two pieces of open source software to create a new piece of software, you need to make sure the licenses are actually compatible with each other.

The problem often arises because of ‘share-alike’ clauses in open source licenses. These clauses require you to offer any work that incorporates the open source software under the same terms as the underlying license. If you have two different open source software components in your new software, and the licenses have different terms, then you’re potentially in a bind.

Copyleft Music Licenses, Creative Commons, and License Incompatibility

The same issues come up in music. There is a lot of music out there that is licensed under Creative Commons. Sites like CCMixter and Free Music Archive promise royalty-free music for use in videos, remixes, etc.

It’s important to pay close attention to Creative Commons license terms when using music from these sources. They may impose restrictions, for example on commercial use, or they may have attribution requirements. If a Creative Commons license includes “No Derivatives” provisions, then you probably can’t combine that work at all with your own music.

But a bigger problem can arise when you mix sources of music. Let’s say you take a beat offered under a CC-BY-SA license. That means the beat is being shared with you under a particular Creative Commons license. You can use the beat in a commercial release. But there are some restrictions on your use, including:

  • (BY – Attribution) That you need to provide a link to the license, attribution back to the original author of the beat (BY), and state any changes you made, and
  • (SA – ShareAlike) If you remix, transform, or build upon the beat, you need to license that work under the same license terms.

Now let’s say you find a sax solo that fits the beat perfectly and you want to combine the two. The sax solo is being offered that under a CC-BY-NC license. That means it has the same Attribution requirement, and it doesn’t even have the ShareAlike requirement. That’s great, right? Unfortunately not…

The sax solo has a new requirement:

  • (NC – Non-Commercial) You can’t use the sax solo for commercial purposes.

And here is the problem – if the beat is incorporated into a new work, that work must be licensed under the same terms (SA). Those terms don’t restrict commercial uses. The sax solo, on the other hand, can’t be used for commercial purposes. So these two licenses are incompatible. The only way to use both the beat and the sax solo is to go back to the owner of one (or both) of them and ask for a different license.

If you go ahead anyway and release music combining the two sources, you’re probably infringing copyright because you can’t comply with the terms of the licenses.

So, bottom line, be careful when using and combining royalty free music!

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