4 Times NOT Using License-Free Music for Videos and Other Instances Didn’t Work Out

Sep 4, 2018

What do Ed Sheeran, Michelle Phan, a wedding videographer, a mom from Minnesota, and a small restaurant named Tadpole have in common? If you read the title of this article, then you can probably guess. All of them have been sued for copyright infringement of music, including music for videos posted on YouTube. It’s not surprising that huge celebrities and famous YouTube stars could stumble into the crosshairs of an expensive copyright lawsuit. What you might not realize is that small-time business owners and YouTube personalities can also get caught and face stiff financial penalties for copyright infringement. Let’s look at four cases big and small where using copyrighted music got individuals and businesses into big trouble.

But First, a Quick Lesson on Music Copyright

You may absolutely love Taylor Swift’s new hit, “Delicate,” but that doesn’t mean you can just throw it into the background of your next YouTube video. You may mean it as a homage to Taylor, but she’s not likely to see it that way. Neither is her record label, which owns the right to her song. If you use a song by Taylor Swift or anyone else without permission, you have infringed on their copyright. Copyright infringement is illegal, and you can face a variety of consequences if you are caught.

For one, if YouTube’s sophisticated Content ID system discovers that your videos include copyrighted music, the video giant will pull down your video, and you’ll need to pass its copyright course to continue posting. If you get caught three times in less than six months, YouTube could nix all your channels and ban you from the site for life. If you made your living through ad revenues on your videos, that punishment will sting.

Still, that’s nothing compared to the legal hot water you could find yourself in if a copyright holder decides to sue. Legally, a copyright owner can sue you for up to $150,000 per copyright infraction. (Here’s a great article that goes into more detail about the penalties for music copyright infringement.)

Think you’re too small to be noticed by the big wigs that run the major record labels and music licensing businesses? Just keep reading. Here are five times copyright infringement didn’t work out too well.

1.  Ed Sheeran, Ariana Grande, Vanilla Ice, and All the Other Music Stars You Love

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Many of the biggest names in music (along with their songwriters) have faced the wrath of a copyright infringement lawsuit. In 1990, representatives for David Bowie and the group Queen sued Vanilla Ice claiming his hit “Ice, Ice Baby,” sounded a little too much like “Under Pressure,” by their clients. The case was eventually settled out of court. Not only did Vanilla Ice have to pay up, but Queen and Bowie received songwriting credits on his track.

More recently, some of today’s biggest stars are also fending off lawsuits, including Ariana Grande. Alex Greggs is suing the pop hit sensation for $150,000, claiming that her 2015 song “One Last Time” cribs the melody and harmonic accompaniment to a song he wrote called “One Last Time.”

Grande has some company. Two of Ed Sheeran’s biggest hits, “Photograph” and “Thinking Out Loud” have become fodder for copyright infringement lawsuits. Songwriters Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard claim that “Photograph,” steals from their song “Amazing” “almost note-for-note” according to the Washington Post. They’re demanding $20 million in compensation.   

Vanilla Ice, Grande, and Sheeran are only the edge of the copyright “iceberg.” The last few years have seen lawsuit hurled at Led Zeppelin, Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, Bruno Mars, and yes, even Ms. Taylor Swift.  

2.   Jammie Thomas-Rasset

It’s not surprising that aggrieved songwriters want to get their fair share from mega-famous (and mega-rich) superstars, like Ariana Grande and Ed Sheeran who allegedly stole their tunes. Surely, though, no one would bother coming after a little guy who obviously can’t pay a huge fine.

Think again. Copyright holders have been going after “the little guy” (and “the little girl”) for longer than you might imagine. In 2009, the news lit up with a story about a Minnesota jury that fined a mother of four $1.92 million for willfully violating the copyrights of 24 songs. The case came about after Jammie Thomas-Rasset allegedly shared songs by Gloria Estefan, Sheryl Crow, Green Day, and Journey on the illegal file-sharing site Kazaa.

The case was brought by the Recording Industry Association of America. It may seem bizarre for such a large organization to sue a single woman, but according to a Fox News article about the case, the company levied over 30,000 similar lawsuits, though most of the other defendants settled for a fine of a few thousand dollars.

3.    Tadpole

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In November of 2014, a small bar and restaurant in the Tampa Bay Area hosted a musician who played covers of “Margaritaville,” “Blues Man,” and “Dirt Road Anthem.” What the owners of Tadpole didn’t know is that they needed a license even to play covers. What they also didn’t know was a “music researcher” working for Broadcast Music Inc. was in the audience.

BMI is a company that manages rights on behalf of artists and record labels and sells licenses to businesses that want to play music in their establishments. When BMI sued Tadpole over copyright infringement, it wasn’t the first their first rodeo. An investigation by the Tampa Bay Times found that BMI filed lawsuits against 25 other establishments in Tampa Bay in the previous five years. Tadpole settled with BMI for $30,000, but the financial hit was too much, and the restaurant was forced to close its doors.

The lesson the Tadpole learned is that no business is too small to be ignored and that license holders can be everywhere, even munching on chicken wings during happy hour.

4.   Michele Phan

If you have ever looked up a makeup tutorial on YouTube, then you know about Michele Phan. Phan was one of the very first YouTube megastars. The beauty and style star built her YouTube channel up to 8 million subscribers and snagged endorsements from Lancome and L’Oreal along the way.

In 2014, the label Ultra Records sued Phan, claiming that she used the music of some of their artists, including Kaskade’s “4 AM,” in her videos without permission. The label cited over 50 examples of copyright infringement and requested $150,000 per infringement or the “maximum statutory damages.” In 2015, the YouTube star settled with Ultra for an undisclosed sum.

Phan’s experience demonstrates that even beloved YouTube stars aren’t safe when they use music for videos without a license. Fortunately for Phan, she had plenty of money to settle her case. You… not so much. If you can’t afford a $150,000 fine (or if you’d rather use that money to grow your business), then don’t steal music!

What You Can Learn from the Mistakes of Others When Choosing Music for Your Videos

These five case studies show that music licensing is no joke. If you put music into your videos without permission, you might as well stick a target on your back. Jamie Thomas-Rasset, the Tadpole prove that no business or person is too small to escape notice or punishment.

The good news is, there’s no reason to put yourself or your video business at risk. Music licensing sites offer you a simple way to find great, royalty free music for your videos. Sites like Soundstripe can keep you within the law while also offering a growing catalogue of diverse music.

At Soundstripe, we negotiate directly with artists and give them fair compensation for a license to use their music. For a low monthly or yearly subscription, you can access our entire music library and use as much of our music as you want. You can also use the same song in multiple projects. There are no limits, restrictions, or legal traps you have to worry about.

We hope that these case studies have been eye opening for you. There’s no reason to take the risk of using unlicensed music for your videos. Take a look at our music library and then sign up for a subscription with us today.