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5 Hard Lessons About the Use of Music Rights in Films No One Will Discuss Openly

5 Hard Lessons About the Use of Music Rights in Films No One Will Discuss Openly

Music can define a film, evoking emotions and enhancing narratives. However, the legal complexities surrounding music rights are a landscape fraught with pitfalls that filmmakers often underestimate. Here’s a deep dive into the hard lessons about using music in films, complete with real-life examples and case law.

1. Music Licensing Can Be Costly

Securing the rights to use a specific piece of music in a film can be a major financial hurdle. The cost of music licensing varies widely depending on the song’s popularity, its creators, and the intended use. For instance, licensing a famous song by a top artist for a worldwide release can cost anywhere from several thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

An illustrative example is the use of The Rolling Stones’ song in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, which reportedly cost $500,000. This example highlights the necessity for filmmakers to budget adequately for music rights from the planning stage of their projects.

2. The Risk of Copyright Infringement

Copyright infringement in music can lead to lawsuits that are financially draining and damaging to a film’s release. Filmmakers must ensure they have obtained all necessary permissions, not just for the song itself but also for specific recordings.

A pertinent case is Bourne Co. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., where the film The Family Guy: Blue Harvest used the song “When You Wish Upon a Star” without proper clearance for a parody version. The courts ruled in favor of Twentieth Century Fox, emphasizing the fair use doctrine, but the case underscores the fine line filmmakers walk on copyright issues.

3. Clearance Challenges Are Common

The process of clearing music involves not only securing rights from the song’s composer and lyricist but also from the performers and the record label if a specific recording is used. Each party can have different expectations and terms for the use of the music.

The 2009 film Watchmen faced such a challenge when it used the iconic Bob Dylan song “The Times They Are A-Changin'.” Director Zack Snyder had to navigate complex negotiations to secure rights from multiple stakeholders, illustrating the importance of early and thorough clearance efforts.

4. Creative Alternatives to Popular Songs

Filmmakers constrained by budget or unable to secure rights might consider alternative solutions. Using original compositions not only circumvents the legal and financial hurdles but also offers the opportunity to create a unique auditory experience that can become closely associated with the film.

An example is the film Inception, which used an original score by Hans Zimmer. The soundtrack became iconic, adding to the film’s unique brand without the complications of licensing existing music.

5. The Impact of Music on Film Distribution

Music rights can also affect distribution. Films that fail to properly clear music rights might face restrictions or be unable to secure distribution. The documentary Mad Hot Ballroom had to replace several tracks for which the rights could not be secured in time for the film's wide release, demonstrating how music can impact a film’s journey to its audience.


The integration of music into film requires careful legal consideration and planning. Filmmakers should consult with music rights experts and possibly consider hiring a music supervisor to handle the complexities of music licensing. Addressing these issues early in the production process can save a film from costly and potentially reputation-damaging legal issues, ensuring a smoother path to audiences worldwide.

Gordon Firemark practices Entertainment, Media and Business Law in Los Angeles. For over 30 years he has helped independent filmmakers, creators, and influencers navigate the complex legal landscape of the industry.

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