Most creatives have come across the terms "royalty-free" and "copyright-free" when searching for music to use in their projects. Shooting a stellar video or creating the best podcast always needs the perfect track to go with it.

So you begin your internet search for music to use, and you come across multiple websites. They broadcast that you can use their tracks or sound effects freely, but later you get notified of an issue with the copyright.

The truth is that the term "free" doesn't always mean free in this context, and the track or sound recording you're using could wind up being far more expensive than you planned if you violate copyright laws, even if you do so unintentionally.

Thankfully, there is a better way to find the perfect tracks to use in your projects without fear of copyright violations. To understand the difference between royalty-free vs. copyright-free and better options for content creators, this article will explain each term and help you decide what’s right for you.

Despite the terms sounding similar, royalty-free is different from copyright-free. Royalty-free signifies that payment goes to the artist, whereas copyright-free means that the music, sound, or track holds no copyright.

Many people tend to use the terms interchangeably, but they are different. Truly copyright-free music is usually available in the public domain without worrying about copyright infringement.

What is Royalty-Free Music?

Royalty-free music requires the user to purchase a one-off license to use the track without paying the artist additional royalties. A royalty is the payment made to the copyright holder whenever the material gets played.

Royalties are negotiated by the one who owns the copyright, and the agreement doesn't give the user rights to the copyright. Purchasing a license to use royalty-free music typically allows the purchaser to use the music for a limited time for a specific, agreed-upon licensing fee.

The company or service pays the song's copyright holder the required royalties so that you don't have to do it yourself or negotiate a licensing agreement with them directly.

Royalty-free means typically means that there aren't any ongoing payments for the purchaser, but there will be restrictions on how the music track can be used. So, it’s important to read the terms carefully when purchasing royalty-free music to use in your content.

Copyright-free music is music that can be used freely by anyone. Music that is truly without copyright can be used in your content without restrictions. But you must still be careful about using copyright-free music in your content.

A copyright is a legal term that provides an artist with property ownership over their creation.  When a musical track is created, there are two copyrights created: the piece of music itself, which includes the lyrics, chords, and other instruments, and the master recording. Copyright covers both of these things.

These intellectual property rights provide the artist copyright protection, with the ability to license the musical work for monetary gain if they choose to. No one else can copy or reproduce the track or song without facing legal problems. They own exclusive rights.

The important thing to remember is that no music is truly without copyright because copyright is granted naturally for any creative work. In essence, when someone lists a song as copyright-free, they’re telling you it’s fair game to use it however you want.

The catch is that it’s your responsibility to prove to the publishing platform that any music you’re using is truly copyright-free, which can sometimes be challenging.  YouTube is a great resource for discovering this; they will immediately mute and/or demonetize your videos if you can’t prove that you have proper permission to use a song.

The difference between the two terms is in regard to what is being waived. There are some apparent aspects of each that need to be addressed, so let's break each one down:

Ownership and Usage Rights

The ownership is vital to copyright; whoever created the original musical work is the owner of that copyright. There could also be more than one owner or publisher of the song's copyright, depending on if someone wrote the lyrics and someone else wrote the music.

The ownership of royalty-free music belongs to the owner of the copyright, who would also be the one collecting royalties. Usage rights are granted according to a licensing agreement, usually for a designated fee.

On the other hand, no one owns the rights to music that is truly copyright-free, so there are no royalties or licensing fees required to use the music.

Quality and Originality of Music

When a piece of music is copyright-free, it's free for anyone to use within the public domain. It's an important thing to note that musical works published prior to the year 1924 (before copyright laws existed) and others where the original owners' surrendered copyrights can indeed be truly copyright-free.

However, that doesn't always mean that the royalties go unpaid. The original owner of the music, whether it has a copyright or not, is still entitled to receive payment when the song or track is used in some way.

It is the publisher's legal right. If you seek to use music for a project, you should locate the original owner; sometimes, you may find music labeled as "royalty-free" only to discover it's a cover or reproduction of original work by someone else.

Availability and Accessibility

Agreements involving copyrighted music indicate that anyone using it pays royalties on an ongoing basis. While royalty-free music still holds copyrights, users typically only pay a one-time fee in order to use it according to the licensing terms.

Royalty-free music is often made with excellent quality and is usually made by artists who want another form of income with their creative outlet. It can be created in a popular way or just done as an original piece. It's a lot less expensive for small businesses or entrepreneurs to license.

Copyright-free music, on the other hand, is less accessible. It almost doesn't exist except in the instance of music that was published before copyright law came into fruition. Copyright infringement law is also tricky; while something may be showing as available within the public domain, other variations or translations could hold copyrights.

If you're searching for copyright-free music on the internet, you must proceed cautiously. If you are caught using music that has copyrights, the penalties and fines can be very high. This is the case even if you're not doing it purposefully, and it can also result in damage to your brand if you're a creator when videos are removed, or your socials are suspended.

Copyright-free music means that there is no copyright present. With a copyright, someone or a business may hold ownership of the music and charge a fee for its use.

If you go with the royalty-free music option, you need to ensure that you’re purchasing the proper license and following the terms of your agreement. Royalty-free music is copyrighted, but the owner is giving permission for licensing with a one-time payment, rather than ongoing royalties.

Here are some things to consider when choosing copyright-free or royalty-free music.

Consider the Purpose of Your Content

Think about what you plan to use the music for and how you plan to use it. For example, if you're a content creator using music for your videos on a social media platform, royalty-free music would be a safer bet for that type of use.

If you're a musician looking to sample royalty-free or copyright-free music, don't do it! The music is not "free," meaning you can use it to create a new-sounding track. If you reuse the music in any fashion, you can face some major legal suits and violations.

Copyright-free music, being public domain, is most likely being used by a number of creators. In other words, using copyright-free music means that you’re sacrificing originality, and your content may not stand out from the rest of the crowd.

Evaluate the Quality and Suitability of the Music

The quality of your music is also something to consider. Public domain or copyright-free songs might not have the best quality recordings for use. Musical tracks or songs that are royalty-free licenses showcase better quality since they are created with the intent to license or distribute.

The problem with copyright-free music, the bottom line is that free only sometimes equals free. Even those tracks being labeled as copyright-free aren’t always truly free of copyright. You must dig deeper and research to discover true ownership and if it is actually free.

There is a great deal of confusion and lacking information surrounding copyrights and royalties regarding music. Royalty-free works still require payment and licensing in some form, even though the end user isn’t required to pay royalties.  There are usually limitations on a license, such as with using stock photos from Pixabay, which doesn’t allow sales or distribution of the images you use.

You may have come across the term for a creative commons license, particularly if you're using the music in a YouTube video. There are different types of creative commons licenses, and their terms can vary regarding music rights. It's best to proceed with caution if you are looking into this type of licensing.

The country or state you live in may have different legalities surrounding the use of music, too. Artistic works often require specific music licenses based on how they’re being used. If you fail to get the correct license for your music, you can incur fees and penalties.

So, what is the best and safest option when you're looking for music for use in your next project? Read on to find out!

Music Licensing: A Third Option for Content Creators

Music licensing is yet another option for those looking for that perfect track for their video, post, project, or other digital marketing promotion. A music license is a license where the artist grants use of the copyrighted song or music track for a set-forth specific amount of time and for a fee.

Track Club by Marmoset makes music licensing simple by providing you with a meticulously curated music catalog and ensuring that independent music artists are supplied with their due royalties when you use their original, copyrighted music tracks.

The best thing about using a music licensing service like Track Club is that the legal stuff is taken care of for you - you never have to worry about violating copyright laws. The quality and originality of the music also far exceed copyright-free and royalty-free music tracks.

Consider how much time you will invest in finding the right music for your project, not to mention the time spent developing and editing your videos and other projects. Having your hard work demonetized for copyright issues simply isn’t worth the risk.

Whatever moniker you use as a streamer, podcaster, or content creator, working with a music licensing service can save you a lot of headaches when you're finding a musical track for your projects.

Final Thoughts

Legal issues can arise when using and buying into claims copyright-free and royalty-free. It's best to ensure that you know the differences between each term, what constitutes copyrighted material, and what is safe to use for commercial purposes.