Before You Shoot Music Videos, Read This Important Legal Guide

The Evolution of Music Videos

Ever since the first motion pictures, music videos have existed — though not as we know them!  Originally played with a piano over silent film, music videos began to take shape with the release of The Jazz Singer, a 1927 movie musical. These musicals evolved recording techniques until the mid-1960s, when bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones began releasing promotional videos for their songs.

In 1975, the first traditional music video was made: Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Four years later, the first nationwide video music program Video Concert Hall launched.  Three years after that was the birth of MTV.

MTV created a new wave of music videos, encouraging labels to send videos as promotional tools for artists.  This brought massive success to pop and rock musicians like Aerosmith, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and the Police.

By the 90s, MTV experienced a sharp downfall.  The novelty of music videos wore off and people demanded more, so MTV gave them Beavis and Butt-Head and, later, Jersey Shore.  Music videos still aired occasionally, but only during odd hours or within specialty shows.

MTV’s dominance was replaced by this generation’s equivalent: YouTube.  Debuting in 2005, it didn’t take long before channels like Vevo began to release official music videos on the site.  Now, rather than waiting for your favorite music video to show on MTV, you could simply search and enjoy.

Legal & Business Issues

Cover Videos 

In order to post a cover video, you legally need to get a license.  Luckily, YouTube has developed their own system for cover artists!

YouTube’s system will recognize a video as a cover and notify the publisher.  This publisher will either take monetization or demand that the poster take the video down . This monetization splits the payment between YouTube and the publisher.  Each of these are weighed against the possibility of worldwide recognition.

Publishers have not yet cracked down on other social media sites (i.e. Instagram).  This is partially due to the length of the clips, as they’re too small to amount to copyright infringement (known as “de minimis”).  It can also be argued that these videos are “fair use,” because the brief excerpt is “transformative” of the original.

Work for Hire Contract

In work for hire contacts, the employer  is considered the author and owns all rights to the music created.  Many big companies, like Sony Music Entertainment, will use these contracts to commission their music videos.


Release contracts are necessary for music videos.  They ensure that anyone signing acknowledges that they have no rights to their or their location’s appearance in the video.

Here are four types of releases.

  • Personal: Anyone featured in a video must sign this release. Here, the person signing the release grants the artist or label all rights to use them in the video.
  • Crowds and Audiences: If you are performing in a public place, anyone recognizable should receive a release. If shooting an audience, you can display a large sign notifying anyone who enters that they have consented to appearance. However, if the video features a person from the audience, that person should sign a personal release.
  • Location: This is for venues that agree to let you shoot. It is useful with noticeable signs at the venue. The release can write in fees.
  • Public Places: Public venues do not need releases if they’re not prominent but if they are, the manager should sign the release.



The First Amendment generally protects the use of a trademark in a music video, but not always.

To assess whether a defendant has infringed upon a plaintiff’s trademark, the courts apply a Likelihood of Confusion Test. This test asks whether use of the trademark by the defendant is likely to cause confusion or mistake, or to associate the plaintiff’s brand with the defendant’s product.

Applying this to music videos, the bottom line is that if a trademark is used in a way that is not likely to confuse a viewer into thinking that the brand sponsored the video, the producer has a First Amendment right to use it.  The classic example is a rapper wearing a baseball cap or t-shirt.  Just because the singer may be wearing a Yankees cap or t-shirt doesn’t mean that someone would think that the Yankees sponsored or produced the video.

On the other hand, when a trademark is prominently featured, it is reasonable to think the brand is sponsoring the video.  For instance, a number of brands are featured in the video for “Telephone” by Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.  In this case, the brands were actually sponsoring the video by paying for product placement.  These days, many indie artists use brands to help fund their videos.

If you have not received approval from a brand, it’s important not to misrepresent a partnership.  Viewers can be misled if too much attention is drawn to the brand itself.

Product Disparagement

Product disparagement is any statement about a brand that is false and likely to hurt the company’s profits.  This includes negative statements about a product, false comparisons to competitors, and statements harming an artist’s reputation.  It is also known as product defamation, trade libel, or slander of goods.

Applying this to a music video, showing a brand’s name or logo negatively could prompt a demand to change or remove the video.  In the 90s, a music video featuring a toy train running off the track and smashing small clay people aired on MTV.  The toy train featured the name of a well-known U.S. railroad, who were less than happy.  In fact, they sent a letter to MTV demanding that they stop playing the video.

The label agreed to blur the name but the railroad insisted that the color of the train — a particular shade of yellow — was the same color as its actual trains.  They changed the entire video to sepia to make the trains a different shade of yellow, but this still upset the railroad.

The label finally took down the video in a lawsuit and paid all damages to the railroad.

Artwork and Other Copyrighted Works

Best practice is to avoid using material protected by copyright.  This will save you a lot of headaches, and possibly money.

Ringgold v. Black Entertainment Television is an important case for copyright.  In the late 90s, Faith Ringgold, a successful contemporary artist, sued BET for featuring her artwork in a show.  Although the show did not discuss the work, the poster was on the scene for a total of 27 seconds.  The federal appeals court in New York found BET liable.

BET raised the de minimis defense. Recall that this is when an amount of work copied is so small that it is below substantial similarity.  However, the court found that there was a qualitative connection between the poster and the show.  The poster depicted a Sunday school picnic held by the Freedom Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia in 1909.  It intended to convey “aspects of the African-American experience in the early 1900s.”  The series, ROC, was a sitcom about a middle-class African-American family in Baltimore and the scene in question was of a gathering in a church hall.

Unlike Ringgold, the case of Sandoval v. New Line Cinema Corp stands for the use of copyrighted artwork in the background of a scene as de minimis.  Sandoval sued New Line Cinema Corp at the same court as Ringgold for using his photographs in the film Seven for 35.6 seconds.  The images were always in the background and out of focus.  The court ruled this to be de minimis and therefore acceptable.

The court also found that the “photographs as used in the movie [were] not displayed with sufficient detail for the average lay observer to identify even the subject matter of the photographs, much less the style used in creating them.”

Ringgold’s image was recognizable and related, Sandoval’s images were not.


The agreement below is for an artist hiring a production company to produce a promo video.  A record company may use the same form of agreement.  An artist may consider forming a corporate entity (i.e., C-Corporation Subchapter S, or LLC) in order to avoid any personal liability.

In addition, an artist would be wise to consult with an accountant or attorney about forming an LLC or S Corporation for tax purposes.  That includes eligibility to deduct video expenses from their personal income.

Music Video Production Agreement by Digital Music News


This article and other articles in this series should be used as a guide to understanding the law, but not as a substitute for the advice of qualified counsel.  This series of articles and the forms included in them have been created for informational purposes only, and do not constitute legal advice.   If you’re going to be making any significant legal decisions, you should consult an attorney.

Steven R. Gordon, Esq., (, is an entertainment attorney specializing in music, television, film and video, and the author of The Future of the Music Business (Hal Leonard 4th ed. 2015).  His clients include artists, songwriters, producers, managers, indie labels and music publishers as well as TV and film producers and digital music entrepreneurs.  He also provides music and sample clearance services for producers of any kind of project involving music.

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Ryanne Perio, Esq. in the preparation of this article.  Ryanne is a litigation associate at the WilmerHale law firm.  He would also like to thank his intern Jena Terlip, 2L at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, for her research and editing assistance.

12 Responses

  1. DavidB

    “It is legally necessary to get a license from the owner of the song before making a cover video. However, YouTube has developed a system Content ID that deals with this issue. The system recognizes the identity of the cover song and then notifies the publisher”

    That seems a bit optimistic. I doubt that Content ID would infallibly identify that something was a cover version, if only because (believe it or not) not every song ever written is in YouTube’s database. And even if Content ID does identify it, the DMCA gives no legal immunity to people who upload material to a service like YouTube. If you upload something which you are not entitled to, you are directly liable to the copyright owner. Moreover, YouTube requires uploaders to make a good faith declaration that they have the rights to all the material uploaded. If you make a false declaration, you may be legally liable to YouTube. They are unlikely to sue you, but they might blacklist you. The proper legal advice might be: “It is legally necessary to get a license from the owner of the song before making a cover video. If you cannot obtain a license, you expose yourself to potential legal action by the copyright owner if you proceed without permission.”

  2. Steve

    There’s no basis that Vines or Instagram is covered under fair use. No publisher or label would agree to that. Proceed with caution.

    • Jehov

      Can you,or would you view a new music video where copyright is submitted,irridation of the U.S. postal service are blamed twice,on audio recording no copyright number is in hand now i wish to allow musicvideo in major film festival on cable television? Don”t really wish to get burned ecnomically or robbed?

  3. esol esek

    THanks for including a link to Scribd which forces me to give them my CC info to download the release. Really useful.

  4. Michelle Hendrix

    I want to broadcast complete music videos in my clothing store. I’m not re-making songs or syncing any images, just playing what the record company already produced. What rights would I need for that?

    • Bert Morgan

      What is the rule for entertainers who mimmic entertainers such as, Frank Sinatra or entertainers like that and record same as a performance with audience at the performance.

    • Ry Edwards

      @Michelle Hendrix
      Pay a Performing Rights Organization (PRO) fee. Look up ASCAP and BMI. You’ll have to track the song you play and report them annually.

  5. Anonymous

    I have a question when shooting a music video if you have the name of a hotel in the background and also a b roll of the news channel van driving by is that infringement on someone trademark

  6. Jamie Gallacher

    I’m sorry to say this but music lawyers and labels have, not just crushed the spirit of music making but totally destroyed it by tying everything up in gordian knots. Its a creeping zeitgeist of censorship which will eventually snuff out ‘real’ music innovation and as has been happening, leaving the public with plastic, sanitised, authorised pap! Lawyers are contributing to the destruction by leaving creatives terrified to push the envelope… in case their infringing on some hidden area of copyright or public licensing law. Music, like writing or any of the other creative arts finds expression in freedom of thought, speech and ideas and should not be stifled by legalities. I worry for the future of the arts that “thou shalt not” will kill any creative muse.

  7. Sparksight - A Video Production Company in Austin, Texas

    useful information

  8. Angela Waterford

    Thanks for mentioning that it’s important to get a license even if it’s going to be a cover video being used for commercial purposes. I suppose if I’ll hire a video production company to help me produce an advertisement for a product in the future, this should be something that I’ll be keeping in mind. My husband told me that if I’m going to sell cranberry juice in five years, I should advertise it with a catchy song that most people know, so this may be an idea that I should consider.

  9. Concerned Friend

    if my friend who is in his third year at university and writes and sings his own songs, and has a label and a manager and published his songs on iTunes and spotify, was approached by first year students to use his song and appear in their uni project video did so. Now they are wanting to monetise their video on youtube and are saying they are entitled to 40% and if he terminates hes breaking a cluase of contract (which he never signed) how does that work?