Copyright: Performance Licenses

When do you need a license to perform a musical work?

When you DON’T need a license

  1. For exemptions related to teaching activities, see Copyright: Performance Exemptions.
  2. For information on music in the public domain, see Copyright: The Public Domain Maze.


When you DO need a license

If paid performers are involved or if someone receives a commercial gain from the performance, then a license is required. There are three licensing organizations that issue licenses for their copyright-owner members:

  1. ASCAP
  2. BMI
  3. SESAC

You can search for the music you’d like to use on each organization’s Web site to get contact information for the copyright owner/music publisher. You may need to pay a licensing fee, and costs vary depending on the publisher.

Blanket licenses

NAfME has a blanket license with ASCAP and BMI to cover musical performances that are part of NAfME or one of its state affiliate’s events. This applies to music licensed by these two agencies.

Many colleges and universities have blanket performance licenses from ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC to cover campus music use.

Dramatic v. Musical

Dramatic musical works (opera, ballet, musical comedy, etc.) are distinct from strictly musical works and require an individual license. ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC do not license dramatic works, only musical works.

What about broadcast performances?

Most radio stations, television stations, and cable companies have blanket licenses. If your students will be performing on radio or television, provide the broadcaster with the titles, writers, and copyright owners of the works you plan to perform. If you’re planning to post a performance online, see NAfME’s guidelines for posting a musical performance on SchoolTube.

Why does it matter?

Without copyright, “many who dream of focusing their talents and energies on music creation would be economically unable to do so—an outcome that would diminish artistic expression today and for future generations,” says the ASCAP Bill of Rights for Songwriters and Composers. Some of those dreamers could be your students.

NAfME member Jay Althouse writes, “Some people find it hard to believe that musical works are not free to be performed by anyone, at any time, and under any circumstances. But, in fact, the 1976 Copyright Act clearly states that the copyright owner of a musical work has the exclusive right to perform the copyrighted work publicly.”


NAfME Copyright Center

Creativity in the Classroom—a program fostering respect for intellectual property and an awareness in students of their creative work.

Posting Your Musical Performance on SchoolTube: A How-To Copyright Guide

Copyright: The Complete Guide for Music Educators by Jay Althouse (Van Nuys, CA: Alfred). Currently out of print, but used copies are available.

Jay Althouse is a music educator who served as a rights and licenses administrator for a major educational music publisher, as well as serving a term on the executive board of the Music Publishers Association of America. He composes choral music and has written several books in addition to his book on copyright.

–Linda C. Brown, April 29, 2009, © National Association for Music Education (