Using Popular Music on YouTube for Your School Video

So you made that awesome testimonial video for your school and you want to put the perfect audio track under it. What's better than your favorite Taylor Swift or Phillip Phillips song? Can you do that? Isn't there lots of popular music on YouTube? Is it illegal?

Here is a quick primer on using popular music in your school videos including new information from YouTube just out last week.

I bought the song on iTunes, doesn't that mean I can use it in my video?
Nope. When you buy a song on iTunes you are purchasing the right to listen to the song. The terms of service state,

(i) You shall be authorized to use iTunes Products only for personal, noncommercial use. 

So that's pretty clear. Using a song to promote your business or nonprofit and republishing that song where someone can get it for free instead of purchasing it constitutes a commercial use.

The only exception to this would be a video used purely internally (like at an all school assembly) which isn't published online.

What if I only use 10 seconds of it?
That's a provision of copyright law called Fair Use. It's certainly possible that you might fall under this law... on the other hand you might not. Fair Use isn't a strategy to avoid being sued, it's only a defense in case you are.

Can't I just use the music in iMovie?
Sure you could. On the other hand anyone who has made a video of their cat has used the music in iMovie. Pet movies and kids taking their first steps (while cute) isn't the category of video you want to be in. Avoid iMovie stock music whenever possible.

This is so annoying! Can I get good background music somewhere for free?
Creative Commons is a handy licensing scheme where up and coming artists grant permission for their music to be used in commercial and noncommercial videos for free. Check out this list of places to find free (and legal) music.

I don't like any of that Creative Commons music. Can I buy cheap music somewhere that I can use in my videos?
You bet. You are looking for 'royalty free music' and there are plenty of good places to find it. My three favorite places are:

I don't have the budget for that and I don't like any of the Creative Commons music. I'm stuck with iMovie music right?
Hold on! If you don't have a budget and still want good royalty free music check out the YouTube free music library (you must have a YouTube account to see this). The folks at YouTube must have been tired of everyone uploading popular music so they are providing all these tracks for free!

There is lots of popular music on YouTube. Can't I just use it in my videos like everyone else?
For many years I have told schools this is a very bad plan. When YouTube's automated music flagging system noticed a popular music track it could do pretty much anything it wanted to our video. Options include:

  • Removing the video
  • Warning or even banning the uploader
  • Removing all audio from the video
  • Selling ads on the video
For a school my advice was always that the risks were too high to use popular music. Very recently YouTube released a tool for users to check the restrictions on a popular music track. Now we can check to see how YouTube will treat a song before we upload it.

What do you think? Will you use more royalty free music in your videos? Or with YouTube's new tool are you going to use all your favorite Justin Bieber tracks? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!