With more and more people getting into DJing, performing live, and making mixes available online, the subject of DJing legally has never been more extensively discussed.
All DJs have to buy or download the tracks they plan to mix legally, and some countries even demand to have a separate digital license that permits them to perform copyrighted songs in the clubs.
It’s a big grey area when it comes to music and live play and today we’re going to explain it all.
I am not offering you legal advice, and advise you to always consult with a licensed professional if you have any concerns.
Let’s get into it.
Do DJs Need Permission to Play Songs?
Depending on location, DJs may or may not need a specific license that allows them to play copyrighted tracks in front of a large crowd. In the US, venues pay for permits, while in the UK and most other countries, DJs need a digital DJ license for commercial type events.
Wedding DJs don’t have to pay for royalties as private events are not considered a public performance and don’t require any license from ProDub in the UK, or three major Performance Rights Organizations in the USA (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC).
In the UK, DJs need to pay royalties by purchasing a digital DJ license called ProDub Licence. With that license, DJs get permission from the copyright holders of both the musical works (via MCPS) and sound recordings for using songs in their professional working capacity.
As a DJ in the USA, you are allowed to play any music that you have bought or obtained through any other legal method. The venues that you perform at are responsible for paying the licensing and public performance royalties for the music.
After they pay their fees to the songs’ respective owners, the venues are now permitted to play it for the crowd. When a DJ works for such a place, they are automatically entitled to play these tunes without paying any fee.
Digital DJ License
A digital music license allows a DJ to play copyrighted music. It allows him to copy tracks from original CDs, vinyl, or other media to their computer’s hard drive. That means they can keep a backup of the songs. Generally, the HD backup is to be used for vinyl emulation software while working as a DJ.
- Weddings and birthdays = you don’t require a license.
- Public events = you only need a license IF you’re the promoter or venue owner.
Another thing to consider is digital music. This license also covers tracks purchased through online services and downloaded in MP3 format. The only way a DJ doesn’t license is when the music tracks state that public presentation is allowed.
Digital DJ license also includes:
- Commercial songs through all formats are included.
- The DJ does not have to request for individual track clearances.
- The DJ does not have to inform which tracks they’ve used. They only need to buy the right package for the number of tunes they’ll use.
- The DJ cannot give copies of the tracks away for promo purposes.
- The license excludes the use of unauthorized remixes.
- Derogatory uses of the tracks are not allowed.
- The DJ is not permitted to upload tunes to any website, FTP server, or even a shared network.
Paying royalties in the UK
In the UK, licenses must be obtained from the Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) and the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society (MCPS). Before, grants had to be bought individually from these groups and had a caveat list. However, in 2008, that all altered when the PPL and MCPS formed a collective license – the ProDub Licence.
ProDub Licence Overview
The ProDub license covers transferring tracks from one format to another.
So if you purchased CDs and ripped them to MP3 files to play from a laptop, you technically need ProDub permission to include the mechanical copyright fee for each tune you’ve ripped. That’s even though it was made legal for public format shift several years ago now.
Technically events are supposed to require proof that you have a ProDub license.
You need to pay royalties only when playing at commercial events. PRS for Music does not price for purposes of a purely domestic or family nature, such as wedding receptions, christening parties or private birthday parties, when:
- Gathering of visitors is by personal invite only (excluding workers, DJs, etc.)
- The party is held in a privately-booked place, not at that time open to the general public
- There is no form of a charge made for entry
- There is no commercial gain to the party’s organizer (e.g., the person booking the venue)
The commercial venues pay royalties because they are the ones making money out of people paying to go into the venue.
My friend works for a company that collects royalties in the UK. When a DJ performs someone else’s song in public, the venue will have to pay a set fee. That will then pay the producer of the song. Please note that it is the producer of the song and not the DJ that gets the money.
The DJ who performed then gets paid by the venue. The producer of the song played also gets paid from the fees collected, as their work was performed.
The DJ is getting paid for their performance rather than the music. For example, if they also produced the song, they would be getting money from the venue and then the money we collected from the venue for the producers.
There are various costs with the ProDub license because it has several tiers that you can buy. Those tiers are outlined in the following table:
|Tracks copied per year||
These tiers allow DJs to pay only for what they need. The £85.11 package would be ideal for a DJ just rising, and they could build their number of songs down the line.
DJ License in the USA
In the USA, Performance Rights Organization (PRO) – parties that represent artists, ensure that if music written or composed by a particular artist is being played in a public space, the artist gets adequate royalties.
Public space could be a bar, club, restaurant, or even an open-air gig – any place where the public can gather.
A private event could be a wedding reception, for which a PRO registration isn’t required.
PRO’s collect a subscription fee from members, and in return, allow them legal licenses to play songs from their database.
There are three major Performance Rights Organizations in the United States:
- American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers(ASCAP)
- Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI)
- Society of European Stage Authors and Composers(SESAC)
While the first two, ASCAP and BMI, are non-profit organizations, the SESAC retains some income as profit.
Between these three, you can safely assume that almost all the music from American artists is licensed.
DJs in the US do not need to have PRO licenses to perform, as the club or event they are playing at is responsible for paying those fees.
If a DJ in the US wants to perform music outside of a licensed event, they will be held accountable for the royalties and other fees that would otherwise be paid by the venue. In that circumstance, they even risk a lawsuit from PRO.
How Does PRO Work Exactly?
The venue should ideally have licenses from all PRO organizations.
Generally speaking, most venues have an ASCAP or BMI license that will recompense copyright holders for music’s public performance in the United States.
Say you want to include Beyonce’s new song in your mix. That song could have 20 different artists working on it – from composers to lyricists to backup singers. A single PRO could represent them all, or, as is more common, they’ll be spread across all 3 PROs.
If you play the new Beyonce song, all three PRO’s can claim royalties from the venue. With all the different songs you’ll end up playing in your mix, you can only imagine how messy the web of copyright holders would look for just one 30 minute playlist.
This is why it’s good to ensure that your club has all three licenses.
Over time, as you do more and more gigs, you’ll realize which spots are compliant and which aren’t.
Both companies use an unpublished formula to compute what popular music may be played in venues such as restaurants, bars, and retail stores.
To date, there is no accurate tracking solution that will be able to report to these organizations what is being played. Therefore, the DJ does not have to have an ASCAP or BMI license when the venues are generally licensed.
Canada DJ License
In Canada, the CONNECT Music Licensing (former AVLA – Audio-Video Licensing Agency) provides licenses to reproduce recorded music.
In 2014, the AVLA changed its name to CONNECT, celebrating the agency’s 30th anniversary.
This organization provides DJ’s the legal right to play copied recorded tracks in Canada commercially.
The CONNECT Music Licensing assures that the music producer, i.e., writer, performer, musician, etc., receives payment for the music they produced.
Without an AVLA license, a DJ performing commercially could be considered to be doing so illegally and could be subjected to penalties and prosecution.
Do all DJs in Canada need a CONNECT license? Short answer, no. The DJs don’t require a permit if:
- they are playing the original LP/cassette/CD that they bought from a shop or,
- they are playing an LP/cassette/CD rented or loaned from the original copyright possessor of the music, i.e., a promo CD.
Therefore, every DJ who downloads tunes and burns to a CD or transfers to a desktop/HDD should have a CONNECT license.
DJ License in Germany
In Germany, a DJ needs a license when he creates copies of his music, and he intends to use that copies to play in a club. If he uses originals to play, he doesn’t require a GEMA license, as the club already pays for it.
GEMA represents the copyrights of over two million rights holders (musicians) from all over the world in Germany. That means she makes sure that the artists also get money for their music if used in public. This is also called a collecting society.
As of April 1st, 2014, as a DJ, you have to pay a license fee to GEMA if you make a copy of a title and then use it to hang up! Copy means, for example, if you copy purchased CDs to your laptop’s hard drive and then go to hang up.
GEMA works as the German arm of most other such societies worldwide, including USA’s ASCAP and BMI and UK’s PRS, effectively supervising all copyrighted music within the country.
All public events that include music, from street festivals to open mics, must either pay GEMA the proper usage fee or report a playlist showing only non-copyrighted music was played. If even one song comes under the GEMA repertoire, the hosts have to pay the full price. The organization’s stubbornness on this matter has led to disappointment among club owners, small venue owners, and DJs.
Things to know about GEMA:
- If you are a DJ performing at a club or any other venue and you’re not doing your own event, you’re covered by the host. Clubs pay some flat-rate here, depending on a few parameters as to how often the venue is open each week, room size, and how much money entrance is.
- Gema explicitly does not deal with things like playlists and doesn’t care what you play. The only significant thing Gema wants to know is, “how many tunes do you have?”.
- No Gema official is authorized to scan your repository and require any proof. You do not have to permit access to your laptop or USB drives as it’s actually against the law there.
Examples of DJ Licensing in Other European Countries
Most of EU Countries require a Digital DJ License.
- The Finnish licensing system does not allow backup copies of any kind.
- Having two copies of any particular track is considered the same as having two separate tracks; thus, both are excluded from the amount permitted by the license.
- The music may be copied to any format
Finland artists using the license are required by Teosto to report the tracks used “upon request.” Gramex does not require such statements for less than 3,000 songs.
The pricing varies based on the number of digital copies DJs need. The complete cost of both licenses combined spans from €280 for 1-300 tracks to €600 for up to 3,000 songs, including VAT.
In Croatia, they have the infamous ZAMP. Every DJ and a club, store, or anything that reproduces music must have the license.
For DJs, up to 4000 tunes is about 180 Euro per year. You might not think it’s pricey, but acknowledge that most DJs here don’t get more than 80 dollars per event.
Almost no one is making a living only off it. My friend had the inspection on his gigs, and they checked if the venue and the DJ have their licenses. They normally let it go if three DJs are performing and only one has a license; they give them a playlist and inspectors leave.
However, there are times when inspectors check everything – from bills from online shopping, to if the copy of Windows on the laptop is genuine. That all depends on the mood of the inspector and his relationship with the club he’s in.
How to Legally DJ Online
Uploading your set to a sharing website is something that thousands of artists will do, but it’s not guaranteed that the mix will stay there, and won’t be signaled for copyright.
What will often happen is that DJs and producers will have an agreement in place with platforms such as YouTube. They will take a tiny percentage of any advertising fees earned via YouTube from your music being played.
A mix uploaded to YouTube will have advertisements overlayed on it, and even sometimes a clickable link in the video description to purchase the original song online in specific DJ pool.
DJs might be most concerned with copyright law when they play promo mixes or live sets and then post them online.
In straightforward words, a DJ set recorded at the moment is not viewed as a “fixed means of expression,” but that doesn’t suggest a live set recording can’t be a copyright violation.
Let’s look at real life for a moment, though. Yes, there are copyright problems regarding posting other DJs’ music, but in reality, if nobody cries about it, the mix will stay online.
My experience shows that record labels, particularly those in the electronic music sector, like to see their tunes being played within DJ mixes, as it provides the label exposure.
In the worst cases, we see DJ sets being excluded from online audio sharing platforms, but we’ve not heard of anyone being sued or taken to court for doing so. It’s just too big a reality even to bother going after.
There are DJ friendly sites where copyright issues won’t crop up. Soundcloud used to be one. However, they’ve recently partnered with the same firm that works with Facebook to remove copyright violating posts. Post that, a lot of DJ’s have noticed their mixes being deleted.
Unless your composition is entirely original, don’t upload it on this platform.
The DJ friendly platforms are:
- Beatport Mixes
- Official FM
- Youtube (doesn’t monetize your videos though – unless you have original tracks)
How to Make a Remix Legally
The main legal problem with remixes is that they are derivative works, indicating that they are derived principally from other music producers’ tracks.
In theory, this isn’t a problem. But almost all tracks released for consumers has copyright protection, preventing remixers from making their version of specific songs without permission.
- Purchase a copy of the track(s). Pirated music is still illegal despite how simple it is to get.
- Gain approval from the copyright holder. Each recorded track has at least two copyrights: one for the track and one for the master recording. You need consent from both copyright holders to remix a copyrighted tune legally.
- Make a statement of approval. Even if it’s just an email, you need some recorded information that the copyright holder has granted you to make a remix of their tune.
Amateurs who want to mix tracks at home for their private use aren’t likely to run into problems if they fail to secure approval unless there’s money included.