Navigate copyright permissions
When uploading or managing content on YouTube, it’s important to identify what falls under copyright protection so you comply with the law. Many creators produce entirely original videos, yet some may incorporate popular music or other copyrighted material—in which case they’ll need to get the copyright owner’s permission or adhere to applicable guidelines, including fair use or fair dealing. Content owners should consider all these factors when enforcing their copyright on YouTube.
Content owners and creators should know when to grant or obtain copyright permissions and licenses, as well as how concepts such as fair use and public domain may impact their work.
Spot when you need copyright permissions and licenses
Before you upload a video to YouTube, you must secure the rights to all elements in your video—including any music (even if it’s just playing in the background), video clips, photos, etc. The first step would be to contact the rights holders and negotiate the licenses for your use.
Licenses typically contain explicit permission for using the content, but may include limitations on exclusivity, specific rights, duration, geography, or other terms. You should seek legal advice for any licensing agreement to be certain which rights are granted.
Be smart on your phone. Just because you record something on your smartphone or other device doesn’t mean you always own the copyright for what it contains. For example, if you record concert footage, certain rights to the material could be held by the performer, music label, or publisher.
Cover your covers. Some people assume making a cover song doesn’t require a license. If you perform a cover song, make sure you have permission from the copyright owners (i.e., songwriter or music publisher). You may need additional licenses to reproduce the original sound recording, include the song in a video, or display the lyrics.
- Creators may be able to share in the revenue from eligible cover song videos on YouTube.
- You can use the YouTube Audio Library to get free music and sound effects for your videos.
Use works fairly with fair use
Fair use (or fair dealing) is a legal doctrine that says you can reuse copyright-protected material under certain circumstances without getting permission from the copyright owner.
Courts will analyze a specific case based on a set of principles to consider whether a piece of content can benefit from fair use or fair dealing exceptions. For example, works of commentary, criticism, research, teaching, or news reporting might be considered fair use or fair dealing.
Specific rules relating to fair use or fair dealing vary on a national basis. U.S. courts look at the four factors of fair use outlined below.
- The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.
- The nature of the copyrighted work.
- The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole.
- The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.
Giving credit to the copyright owner or including a disclaimer such as “no infringement intended” doesn’t necessarily constitute fair use. Even if you add original material to someone’s copyrighted work, your video may not qualify as fair use.
Did you know?
- The U.S. Copyright Office maintains a Fair Use Index that tracks judicial decisions on fair use.
- The Center for Media and Social Impact has assembled a “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video” that discusses common use cases.
- Creator Kirby Ferguson has made several helpful videos explaining fair use.
Access the public domain
Copyright protects works for a set period of time. The length of a term of copyright protection depends on various factors, such as the date and place of publication and whether it’s a work of corporate authorship. When works eventually lose their copyright protection, they enter the “public domain,” making them free for everyone to use.
There’s no official list of works in the public domain, so it will be your responsibility to verify that a work is in the public domain if you want to use it. Keep in mind that rules for public domain may differ by country.
- For more guidance on public domain, see the Copyright Information Center from Cornell University.
- Certain works created by U.S. federal government agencies are in the public domain immediately upon publication.
See it in action
Duck and CoverDuck and Cover is a film produced in cooperation with the U.S. Federal Civil Defense Administration and in consultation with the safety commission of the National Education Association. (Public domain)
Get creative with open licenses
Creative Commons licenses provide different kinds of open licenses so content owners can grant someone else permission to use their work under certain circumstances. There are millions of Creative Commons licensed videos on YouTube. Anyone can remix, transform, and build upon the material in these videos for free.
If you mark your video with a CC BY license, you retain your copyright, and other users get to reuse your work subject to the terms of the license that you choose. C-SPAN, Voice of America, and other networks have contributed to the CC BY catalog on YouTube.
Be aware that some users may mark their videos as Creative Commons even if they don’t have all necessary rights. It’s up to you to determine whether using such a video might infringe on someone’s copyright, so it’s a good idea to check on this first.