Free Music vs Royalty Free Music

Essential Differences Between Royalty-free and Free Music

Learn about the differences between free and royalty-free music.

Any serious video project usually needs some music. Audio helps transition between scenes, build emotion, or set the tone of your video story. Music is also that asset that video editors and video makers may not consider as essential for their projects. Oftentimes, we hear video editors say “we’ll figure out the sound later”. With this attitude, music licensing is sometimes disregarded until the very last moment.

We believe that music licensing is extremely important. Video makers need to be informed about the differences between free music, royalty-free music, copyright free music, and public domain music. Knowing the limitations of your music license is important, especially if your video is made for commercial use. This case study about Epidemic Sound’s music licensing is an interesting example of how disregard to music licensing for YouTube may turn into a disaster.

Music for Video

Videos without background music are boring, to say the least. A good soundtrack pulls the viewer’s attention and enriches visual scenes by adding more emotion. Choosing music for a video project is an art in itself. You need to make sure that music does not prevail over the video. You need to pick music, which has a steady pace. There are so many things to consider when you plan for sound in your project. Licensing is one of those important factors that come into the mix.

Let’s dive into the different types of online music that you can use in video projects. Being informed about different music types and licensing may save you a bunch of hassle when you upload, distribute, and syndicate your final video.

Copyrighted Music

You should not be using any copyrighted music, like the newest radio hits, in your video projects. It may be cool if you insert a song or two in a home video to show your family. But such a video uploaded to YouTube will be detected, muted out, or even removed.

YouTube’s Content ID algorithm is a potent tool used for detecting copyrighted music.

Here are the potential consequences that your YouTube video and channel may face:

  • the video may be deleted automatically
  • there will be an alert sent to your account
  • YouTube may take half of the earnings from that video (if you monetized it) and direct it to the owner of the music
  • the video may be restricted in different locations and regions
  • your channel may be banned and discontinued

In other words, video makers need to approach their selection of background music and soundtracks carefully. Being careful means using the proper music license for the tracks you’d like to use.

In short, don’t use that Shakira song in your next video project. And no, you cannot modify the song and use the modified version, either.

Free Music

Free music is about downloadable music tracks that free music sites offer free of charge. Usually, this type of music is available for use in personal and commercial projects.

Despite its “free” character, video editors need to check the music license. Free music can be usually used in multiple creative projects. But free does not mean that the ownership of that track is transferable. You don’t pay any fee for using it, but you don’t own it. Re-distribution is often forbidden as well.

We keep a list of free music sites or free music collections on our site. We always recommend to check the respective music licensing agreement even if the music track is free.

Also, keeping track of all music licenses – whether for free tracks or not – can help provide proof in case of disputes on YouTube, for example. We know of numerous cases when YouTube’s Content ID algorithm would spot music obtained on free music sites. So licensing proofs help solve such disputes quickly.

Let’s add a couple of words about Public Domain Music and Creative Commons Music.

These two concepts are related to “Free Music”.

Public Domain Music

Music under Public Domain is that music where the owner chose not to copyright-protect it or the protection time expired.

Let’s give an example. Ludwig van Beethoven’s music and most early silent films fall under public domain because of either they were created before copyright existed, or their copyright term expired.

In the United States, any musical composition created before 1925 falls under Public Domain. Every year more music becomes public domain. For example, songs and music written in 1926 will become public domain on January 1st, 2022.

There is a caveat about music falling under Public Domain, though. It comes from the dual nature of any music track: composition and recording/performance. A Beethoven musical composition may fall under public domain, but its recording performed by a band or a musician may be copyright protected. In other words, the band or the artist holds the copyright on their interpretation of the great German’s music.

When you want to use Public Domain music in your projects, you need to make sure that it’s not just marked as such. So you cannot just grab any Beethoven symphony from Shopify or YouTube and use the track in your video. The license to the music track should allow for commercial use. So next time you plan to use a famous classical tune as elevator music, in online videos, or sales presentations, check out the fine print and search for “commercial use permitted”.

Creative Commons Music

Music under Creative Commons licensing is protected by its author, but some uses are allowed for free. Usually the creator asks for attribution and credit. The creator may also choose to prohibit commercial use or monetization.

In short, if you download music under Creative Commons from sites like Bensound, you need to comply with their music license. CCTrax is another example of a music library offering tracks covered by the creative commons licensing. You can download and use their music for free as you see fit. But the usage is limited to non-commercial activities and attribution is required.

Well, the phrase “copyright free music” is currently used to mean “royalty free music”. It’s not very correct, by the way.

“Copyright free” means that something, like a song, was copyrighted once. Now that copyright expired and another party acquired the right to use it. We would not recommend using this ambiguous term in relation to music for video. Let’s just say “royalty-free music”, because this latter term describes such music better.

Royalty Free Music

Royalty-free music means that anyone can use this type of copyrighted music (usually for a fee) without paying royalties to the creator.

In other words, you pay for the license to use the track in one or multiple projects. The licensing contract is the proof you obtained the license lawfully, and can use the music track in your work. The licensing company or website deals with the musician, and not you.

The licensing agreement between you as the buyer and the audio library as the seller of the royalty-free music track usually explains how the music can be used and what the limitations are. For example, the standard music license from the majority of stock music libraries like PremiumBeat or Epidemic Sound cover all online use cases, including YouTube, Vimeo, social media. But the moment you need music for a TV program or theatrical performance, your music license will be different (more expensive).

All free music, which certain audio libraries offer as samples of their paid music collections, is also royalty-free. The license agreement is the same as in case of paid tracks. Even free music sites like Mixkit classify their free music as “royalty-free”.

Let’s list several popular royalty-free music libraries. They offer their royalty-free music on-demand or as a subscription. The quality, pricing, and licensing terms differ. Still, they all fall under the category “royalty-free”.


PremiumBeat is a popular royalty-free music library. They offer over 20,000 tracks. You can license this music on demand and as a subscription. All music is curated and exclusive.

Music Bed

Music Bed is another popular music library that provides high-quality music for filmmakers and video pros. The music is highly curated. The quality is superb.

Shutterstock Music

Affiliated with PremiumBeat, this music library has a relatively inexpensive music subscription. Same quality as PremiumBeat.


This young music library has thousands of music tracks. All music is curated.

Epidemic Sound

Epidemic Sound is a large music library. Its low-cost music subscription may be tricky at times.


This music library is massive, but it’s not curated. So a lot of effort will be needed to find the right track with the right quality.

Need more music for your next video? Check out these free resources:

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