Posts Tagged ‘u s copyright office’

The Mechanics of Mechanical Licenses

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

By Brian Taylor Goldstein, Esq.

Dear Law and Disorder:

Does all music (if not in public domain) require a mechanical license to be recorded? I don’t quite understand when it is needed and when a person could pay a statutory fee and move forward without permission.

Yes, anytime you want to make an audio recording (whether you want to go into a studio or record live performance), you must obtain a “Mechanical License” from the publisher or the copyright owner(s) of the song or music you wish to record. A “Mechanical License” is the permission issued to a licensee (typically a record company or someone recording a cover song for their independent release) granting the licensee the right (ie: permission) to make and distribute an audio recording of a specific composition at an agreed-upon fee, per unit manufactured and distributed.

If the music has never been recorded and publicly distributed before and yours will be the first recording, then you will need to seek a Mechanical License directly from the publisher or copyright owner(s) who are free either to refuse to grant you the license or charge you whatever license fee they want. However, once a musical composition has been recorded and publicly distributed, the U.S. Copyright Act provides for a “Compulsory Mechanical License” to anyone who wants to record and distribute the work provided certain statutory requirements are met: (1) You have to provide notice to the publisher or copyright owner(s) of your intent to claim a Compulsory Mechanical License; and (2) you must pay the applicable Compulsory Mechanical License Fee set forth in the Copyright Act. The Compulsory Mechanical License Fees are set by the U.S. Copyright Office and are updated every few years. Currently, the rate is 9.1 cents or 1.75 cents per minute of playing time or fraction thereof, whichever is greater, per united manufactured and distributed. (Distribution includes both physical copies (ie: CDs) as well as full downloads. Different rates apply for limited-use downloads, ringtones, on-demand streaming.) Provided these requirements are met, the Mechanical License must be granted…the publisher or copyright owner(s) cannot refuse…that’s why it’s “compulsory.”

However, before you start drafting your Grammy-Award acceptance speech, there are few restrictions to keep in mind:

1) Compulsory Mechanical licenses do not apply to dramatic works, such as operas, film soundtracks, ballet scores and Broadway medleys. If you want to record one of these, you will need to seek the Mechanical License directly from the publisher or copyright owner(s) who are free to refuse or charge whatever they like.

2) Compulsory Mechanical licenses are available for audio-only recordings only. If you are making an audio-visual recording, such as a DVD or video, or anything involving visual images, you will need to obtain a “Synchronization License” directly from the publisher or copyright owner(s) who are free to refuse or charge whatever they like.

Compulsory Mechanical Licenses can be obtained through the Harry Fox Agency (, which represents most U.S. publishers. Mechanical licenses can also be negotiated directly with the publisher or copyright owner(s).


For additional information and resources on this and other legal and business issues for the performing arts, visit

To ask your own question, write to

All questions on any topic related to legal and business issues will be welcome. However, please post only general questions or hypotheticals. GG Arts Law reserves the right to alter, edit or, amend questions to focus on specific issues or to avoid names, circumstances, or any information that could be used to identify or embarrass a specific individual or organization. All questions will be posted anonymously.




The purpose of this blog is to provide general advice and guidance, not legal advice. Please consult with an attorney familiar with your specific circumstances, facts, challenges, medications, psychiatric disorders, past-lives, karmic debt, and anything else that may impact your situation before drawing any conclusions, deciding upon a course of action, sending a nasty email, filing a lawsuit, or doing anything rash!