So you've just finished editing your vacation video, and you're going to put it online to show your friends and family. Now you want to add some music; perhaps a bit of thrash metal over the snowboarding footage, or how about "California Dreamin'" by The Mamas & The Papas to accompany your trip down the California coast? You stroll over to your CD collection, grab a couple of your favorite tunes, then drop them into the video and upload it to your Web site. It becomes the next viral video, and thousands of people are downloading it. And then the police kick down your door and throw you in prison for illegally distributing music.
Well, perhaps that's not quite how it would work out. What's more likely is that the video could get deleted from your Web site if the copyright holder complains to your hosting service.
Arguments about fair use aside, there's no disputing the fact that putting music you don't have permission to use into your videos is not a good idea. Especially in today's world, where people get sued for the illegal distribution of music. Fortunately, you don't have to risk it: There are thousands of pieces of music available online that you can use for free without risking any legal unpleasantness.
Art for art's sake
Many people create music simply because they want it to be heard; they either don't want to make any money from it, or they view it as a promotional tool to sell CDs. So they allow their work to be copied, streamed, and used pretty much anywhere, as long as they get credit for it.
The general term for this is "podsafe" -- meaning that it's safe to use in a podcast. Web sites such as PodShow and Podsafe Audio contain thousands of tracks that can be used, though you should check the license on each track before you use it.
The music on these sites is often released under a Creative Commons attribution-noncommercial license, which means that you can copy and use it for any noncommercial purpose, as long as you include a credit for the musician. However, some people release their music under different types of licenses, some of which may prevent their use in a video. In particular, the Creative Commons Music Sharing license doesn't allow you to use the music in a video. Always check the license, which should be available on the same Web page from which you can download the music.
While some major record labels won't even consider distributing their music online, other smaller labels realize that downloading music from the Internet can be a great promotional tool. Record companies like Magnatune and Opsound offer high-quality, Creative Commons licensed versions of their music that can be used for noncommercial videos, as long as you give the artists credit and add a plug for the Web site where you can buy the songs.
"If the video project is noncommercial and/or educational, there is no charge for use of the music for one album of choice," says Theresa Malango of Magnatune. "However, the project would be required to give attribution in the form of credit to the artist and Magnatune as well. Specifically, we suggest using the form of 'You heard the 'Song Name' by 'Artist Name,' which is available at magnatune.com' in the video credits."
Magnatune offers a wide selection of music, ranging from Trance to Russian Orthodox Church chants.
Archive.org's Netlabels section is another great source for music. It contains thousands of songs in a huge range of genres from artists all over the world. I'm particularly fond of the folk music that it features from groups like the Chinkapin Hunters, which makes great background music for videos.
There are also unusual audio files on Archive.org, like the Conet Project, which holds recordings of numbers stations, mysterious shortwave stations where robotic voices reel off long lists of numbers. These could be ideal if you're creating a spy film. However, not all of the recordings on archive.org can be used in videos, so check the terms of the license before you use any of them.
There are also lots of older pieces of music available that can be used because they are out of copyright: the 78 RPMs section of Archive.org is worth browsing through if you're looking for something quirky. It contains hundreds of songs and musical pieces that were released in the early 1900s on 78-rpm records that have been sampled. Because they are so old, they are out of copyright and you can use them however you want. It's a great source for classic songs: How cool would it be to have Enrico Caruso singing "O Sole Mio" in the background on that video of your Italian vacation?